Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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Review: The Great Bridge

Review: The Great Bridge

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn BridgeThe Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

On the inside cover of my copy of this book its previous owner has inserted a little love note. The brief message is written in a very neat script, in red ink, apparently on the eve of a long separation. Now, you may think that a book about the Brooklyn Bridge is a rather odd gift for a lover—and, considering that the book ended up in a used book shop, this may be what the recipient thought, too—but, now that I have read McCullough’s chronicle of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can see why it might inspire such sentimental attachment. For it is a thoroughly lovable book.

This is my first McCullough work, and I am pleased. He is a fine writer. His prose is stylish yet unobtrusive, striking that delicate balance between being intelligible but not simplified. He has a keen eye for the exciting details of a seemingly dry story; and effectively brings together many different threads—the personalities, the politics, the technology—in such a way that the past looms up effortlessly in the imagination. The only parts which I think could have been improved were his explanations of the engineering, since he used too many unfamiliar terms without explaining them, perhaps thinking that such explanations might swell the book to unseemly proportions. In any case, he is a writer, not an engineer, and he shines most when discussing the human experience of the Bridge.

The bridge’s designer was John A. Roebling, who deserves a book unto himself. An eccentric polymath, who among other things studied philosophy under Hegel, he came to America to found a Utopian village and ended up the foremost expert on suspension bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was his project; but tragically he died during the first year of the project, after his foot was crushed, his toes amputated, and he contracted tetanus. His son, Washington, immediately took over—in many ways just as remarkable a man. A Civil War hero with a tenacious memory, the bridge ruined his health, too, through a combination of stress and the bends.

In those days the bends were known as “caisson sickness,” named for the compartment sunk underwater in order to excavate for the bridge’s foundations. These were filled with pressurized air in order to prevent water from seeping in. Unfortunately, in those days the dangers of rapidly depressurizing were not understood, so many people fell ill during the construction—including Roebling himself, who spent the final years of the bridge’s construction as an invalid, observing the work through a telescope from his apartment. Luckily for him, his wife, Emily, was a remarkable woman—diplomatic and brilliant—and helped to carry the project to completion.

These personalities come alive in McCullough’s narration, turning what could have been a dry chronicle into an enthralling book. And this is not to mention the political corruption, the manufacturing fraud, the deadly accidents, and the glorious celebrations that took place during the fourteen years of the bridge’s construction.

Yesterday I revisited the Brooklyn Bridge, which is beautiful even if you know nothing about it. As a friend and I strolled across in the intense summer heat, elbowing our way through crowds of tourists, I blathered on about all the fun facts I had learned from this book—which I am sure my friend very much appreciated. Sensing his discomfort, I made sure to emphasize that a fraudulent wire manufacturer had tricked the engineers into using sub-par cables, and that a panic broke out a week after the bridge’s opening, which resulted in twelve people being trampled. You see this book has already helped my social life. Maybe next I can write my own love note inside.

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Review: Travels with Charley

Review: Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.

This little volume must rank as one of the great American travel books—though I am not quite sure what that means. Travel literature, by its nature, finds itself in a paradoxical position: to search for truth by becoming briefly acquainted with a wide and disconnected series of experiences. Steinbeck addresses this in his opening salvo: “So it was I decided to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the large truth.” But the riddle is to figure out which truths are diagnostic and which distractions. Steinbeck seems later to have thrown up his hands in despair at the prospect, as he retreats into subjectivism: “I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

Yet if the cliché is true, and the journey is more important than the destination, then Steinbeck’s search for America is more important than what he finds. That sounds reassuring, at least. In any case, the search is a pleasure to read. Steinbeck presents himself as an aging everyman, puttering about with his poodle and his camper, making small-talk with locals, sampling diner breakfasts, and getting lost on country roads. Very little of consequence happens; nothing much is discovered that the fifty-eight year old author did not already know; and it is lovely to read about. True, Steinbeck could, and did, narrate a fly buzzing around a dirty kitchen and turn it into poetry; but his writerly skill is not the only virtue this book possesses.

The book’s most consistent note is that of resigned obsolescence. Steinbeck looks upon the country—one which he once knew so deeply that he created its most representative novels—and finds it unfamiliar. He is past his prime, and knows it; and, more impressively, accepts it. He was writing in the wake of On the Road, another iconic travel book; and though Steinbeck’s work is far more mature and, I think, much better written, it nevertheless fails to capture the ethos of the time in the way Kerouac or, indeed, the younger Steinbeck was able to do. I am not saying this in criticism, but in admiration, since Steinbeck still managed to create a classic book. Like any great artist, he found the great universal in his tiny particular; and he transformed his sense of being out of touch into a great sighing comment on his changing country.

Now, of course much of this book isn’t true. All novelists are born and bred liars. But it sounds true enough, and that is all I want from a travel book.

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Review: TITAN: the Life of John D. Rockefeller

Review: TITAN: the Life of John D. Rockefeller

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He played golf assiduously, always alone, matching his record on one day against his record on another; just what the saints do when they daily examine their conscience… Such was probably also the interest dominating Rockefeller’s chase after millions. He was beyond comparing himself with his competitors; he compared himself with himself.

—George Santayana

As a child of Sleepy Hollow, I have almost literally grown up in Rockefeller’s shadow. The best walking paths in the area are in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, an expansive and beautiful slice of forest made from a part of Rockefeller’s former estate. I can also walk to Rockwood, a park with a gorgeous view of the Hudson River, where John’s brother William had his mansion (since demolished). John D. Rockefeller’s own mansion, Kykuit, sits atop the nearby Pocantico Hills, and is a popular tourist destination. And yet, aside from his reputation as an ultra-rich monopolist, I knew almost nothing about the man.

Thus I turned to Ron Chernow, and I am glad I did. For Rockefeller presents a challenging subject for would-be biographers. A private, reserved, and even a secretive man, John D. Rockefeller was a beguiling mixture of avarice and piety; and throughout his life he has provoked both passionate praise and vicious criticism. Since Rockefeller himself was so guarded during his lifetime, never spontaneous or candid, while achieving such historical importance, it is hard to resist the urge to simplify his character—merely to fill up the lacunae he left. Luckily, Chernow’s patience and sensitivity allow him to paint a convincing and unforgettable portrait of this evasive figure.

As Chernow himself says, Rockefeller was the walking embodiment of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. He was actuated by a faith which told him that it was his holy duty to work zealously, and which taught him to see his own success as divine favor and his rivals’ failure as divine retribution. This faith in his mission and his rectitude gave him a purpose and a justification, pushing him to work more devotedly than his colleagues, and to feel no pangs of remorse for those he bruised along the way. His outstanding strengths were his iron will and his extreme deliberation. He kept to a rigid schedule, never acted impulsively, tabulated all of his personal expenses in a little booklet, and even showed up to work on his wedding day. This was a man who made money with the morbid devotion of a saint.

During the sections charting Rockefeller’s rise to success, I was filled with a horrified disgust with the man. Such a joyless, self-righteous hypocrite—filling his pockets with gold and wagging his fingers at the poor. I did not see anything to praise in his religion of money. Simple greed is noxious enough, but sanctimonious greed is revolting.

Yet by the end of the book I found that I both liked and admired the man, or at least the man he later became. For Rockefeller, while full of his own vices, was free of many of the vices we associate with the rich. He was neither ostentatious nor profligate; and if his puritan strictness seems joyless—his hatred of drink, cards, smoking, or anything remotely racy—it at least saved him from hedonistic debauchery. And as he grew older, he became more playful, giving away dimes to strangers, riding around in sporty automobiles, and obsessively playing golf. I was surprised to learn that Rockefeller retired early from his post at the helm of Standard Oil, ceasing all regular duties in his fifties, only retaining a symbolic title. Clearly, he saw more to life than work and money.

But Rockefeller’s greatest virtue was his charity. He gave profusely and generously throughout his life, even more than Andrew Carnegie. Much of this was new to me (for example, I had no idea he founded the University of Chicago); and this is no accident, since Rockefeller did not like putting his name on things. (His name was so vilified anyway it would likely have hampered his charities.) And contrary to what you might expect, Rockefeller’s philanthropic impulse was deep and genuine, something he had from the beginning of his life. According to Chernow, Rockefeller’s contributions to medical research revolutionized the field. So on a purely utilitarian tabulation of pain and pleasure inflicted, Rockefeller probably comes out positive in the end. (Rockefeller himself, of course, thought that his life had been virtuous from beginning to end, and never conceived charity as recompense.)

As I hope I have made clear, Rockefeller was a complex man—or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that he continually resists attempts to stereotype him, which is always uncomfortable. And it is a testament to Chernow’s ability that he captures Rockefeller in all these aspects. Now, this was my first Chernow biography and, I admit, I was somewhat disappointed at first. Naturally, I measured this book against Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and found Chernow’s book very thin on historical background by comparison. But Chernow partially compensates for this with his fine psychological sensitivity, as sharp as a first-rate novelist. The result is a thoroughly engrossing biography, so good that I am left wishing Chernow had made it longer—specifically during Rockefeller’s early years. And you know a book is good when 700 pages does not satisfy.

 


(As an afterthought, I would like to note how gratifying it is when different books serendipitously overlap. I knew of Charles Strong as one of George Santayana’s best friends, familiar to me from Santayana’s autobiography and his letters. But I did not remember that Strong married Bessie Rockefeller, John’s eldest child, who went insane and died at the age of forty. Santayana helped to look after Bessie’s daughter, Margaret, and even handed her off during her wedding.)

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Review: Life on the Mississippi

Review: Life on the Mississippi

Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And, mind you, emotions are among the toughest things in the world to manufacture out of whole cloth; it is easier to manufacture seven facts than one emotion.

This is an awkward book to review, since it consists of so many, varied sections. Yet it can be neatly divided between the first third and the remaining portion. After a few brief chapters about the mighty river and its history, the beginning section focuses on Twain’s young days as a steersman aboard Mississippi River steamboats. These are easily the best pages. As evinced by the Huckleberry Finn stories, Twain had a marvelous way of writing from a child’s perspective, naively learning to navigate the world. What is more, Twain does an excellent job in illustrating the extensive knowledge necessary to effectively pilot a steamboat—memorizing hundreds of landmarks, learning how to gauge speed and depth, and dealing with difficult coworkers.

The second section is a meandering account of a voyage he took two decades after leaving the steamboat business, when he was an accomplished author. At this point he was already so famous he had to adopt a pseudonym. Here he pauses so often to lose himself in tributary wanderings that the narrative breaks down into a vaguely connected series of anecdotes, most of which seem obviously inflated or simply fictional. Though there is much to amuse in this section, I found myself growing increasingly restless and bored as I continued on, eager for the end. Though I did not dislike this book as much as I did A Connecticut Yankee, I nevertheless felt that the joke had gone stale and that Twain was merely filling up space.

My reactions to Twain tend to shift violently. Again, in the beginning section of this work, when he is writing from the perspective of his younger self, his writing is energetic and witty and wide-eyed. But when he dons the cap of a raconteur, I tend to find his stories mechanical and dull. His account of the Pilots’ Association is an excellent example of this—proceeding in predictable steps to the inevitable conclusion. And when he shifts away from humor, the results can be pretty grim. His flat-footed tall tale of the man who sought revenge for his murdered family—a mix of the ghoulish and the sentimental—is an excellent example of this.

Even with these faults and lapses, this book is an unforgettable portrait of a time and place that are gone for good, written by an indefatigably mordant pen.

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Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleHow to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.

Dale Carnegie is a quintessentially American type. He is like George F. Babbitt come to life—except considerably smarter. And here he presents us with the Bible for the American secular religion: capitalism with a smile.

In a series of short chapters, Carnegie lays out a philosophy of human interaction. The tenets of this philosophy are very simple. People are selfish, prideful, and sensitive creatures. To get along with people you need to direct your actions towards their egos. To make people like you, compliment them, talk in terms of their wants, make them feel important, smile big, and remember their name. If you want to persuade somebody, don’t argue, and never contradict them; instead, be friendly, emphasize the things you agree on, get them to do most of the talking, and let them take credit for every bright idea.

The most common criticism lodged at this book is that it teaches manipulation, not genuine friendship. Well, I agree that this book doesn’t teach how to achieve genuine intimacy with people. A real friendship requires some self-expression, and self-expression is not part of Carnegie’s system. As another reviewer points out, if you use this mindset to try to get real friends, you’ll end up in highly unsatisfying relationships. Good friends aren’t like difficult customers; they are people you can argue with and vent to, people who you don’t have to impress.

Nevertheless, I think it’s not accurate to say that Carnegie is teaching manipulation. Manipulation is when you get somebody to do something against their own interests; but Carnegie’s whole system is directed towards getting others to see that their self-interest is aligned with yours. This is what I meant by calling him the prophet of “capitalism with a smile,” since his philosophy is built on the notion that, most of the time, people can do business with each other that is mutually beneficial. He never advocates being duplicitous: “Let me repeat: The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.”

Maybe what puts people off is his somewhat cynical view of human nature. He sees people as inherently selfish creatures who are obsessed with their own wants; egotists with a fragile sense of self-esteem: “People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves—morning, noon and after dinner.”

Well, maybe it’s just because I am an American, but this conception of human nature feels quite accurate to me. Even the nicest people are absorbed with their own desires, troubles, and opinions. Indeed, the only reason that it’s easy to forget that other people are preoccupied with their own priorities is because we are so preoccupied with our own that it’s hard to imagine anyone thinks otherwise. The other day, for example, I ran into my neighbor, a wonderfully nice woman, who immediately proceeded to unload all her recent troubles on me while scarcely asking me a single question. This isn’t because she is bad or selfish, but because she’s human and wanted a listening ear. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

In any case, I think this book is worth reading just for its historical value. As one of the first and most successful examples of the self-help genre, it is an illuminating document. Already in this book, we have what I call “Self-Help Miracle Stories”—you know, the stories about somebody applying the lessons from this book and achieving a complete life turnaround. Although the author always insists the stories are real, the effect is often comical: “Jim applied this lesson, and his customer was so happy he named his first-born son after him!” “Rebecca impressed her boss so much that he wrote her a check for one million dollars on the spot!” “Frank did such a good job at the meeting that one of his clients bought him a Ferrari, and another one offered him his daughter in marriage!” (These are only slight exaggerations.)

Because of this book’s age, the writing is quaint and charming. Take, for example, this piece of advice on how to get the most out of the book: “Make a lively game out of your learning by offering some friend a dime or a dollar every time he or she catches you violating one of these principles.” A lively game! How utterly delightful.

Probably this book would be far more effective if Carnegie included some exercises instead of focusing on anecdotes. But then again, it would be far less enjoyable reading in that case, since the anecdotes are told with such verve and pep (to quote Babbitt). And I think we could all use a little more pep in our lives.

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Review: A People’s History of the United States

Review: A People’s History of the United States

A People's History of the United StatesA People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a country famous for its historical ignorance, Howard Zinn sold two million copies of a 700-page history book. In a country famous for its allergy to the left, Howard Zinn wrote a best-seller from a staunchly left-wing perspective. Every evaluation of his book must begin and end with this achievement. Whatever you like or dislike about Zinn, clearly he did something right.

As you set out to judge this book, you must first decide whether it is a work of inquiry or of advocacy. This distinction has worn thin in our postmodern age, as we have become hyper-aware of the inescapability of bias. Nevertheless I think the distinction holds good in theory, however blurred it may be in practice.

An inquirer searches for the truth, even if the truth contradicts her original opinion; an advocate attempts to motivate people, to bring about some action, even if the action is somewhat vague or far-removed. An inquirer will risk dense and dry writing to get her point across; an advocate will risk simplification and generalization to get her point across. An inquirer will highlight information that her thesis doesn’t account for, and will include counterarguments and consider their merits; an advocate will minimize inconvenient information and will knock down strawmen of counterarguments.

This book is clearly a work of advocacy. And it is important to remember this, since as a work of inquiry A People’s History of the United States has almost no merit whatsoever. Zinn mostly relies on secondary sources, and makes no attempt at addressing counterarguments or at accommodating different viewpoints. His aim is not to explain American history, but to use American history to spark outrage.

Granted that this book is advocacy, we must then ask two more questions: whether it is responsible or irresponsible, and whether it is altruistic or selfish. Responsible advocacy uses careful research, seeks out unbiased sources, and acknowledges those sources; irresponsible advocacy uses lies or severe distortion of facts, or simply lies by omission. Altruistic advocacy acts on behalf of a wide swath of people, not just a narrow interest; selfish advocacy does the opposite. As an example of responsible, altruistic advocacy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring addresses an issue of broad concern using careful research. On the other hand, the cigarette industry’s fight against the researchers who uncovered the negative health effects of smoking was an example of irresponsible, selfish advocacy, fighting on behalf of a small group using outright lies.

It is worth noting, by the way, that these two values can come into conflict. In these situations the advocate is faced with a choice: What is better, to distort the truth for a worthy cause, or to tell the truth at the expense of that cause? You might say that, if dishonesty is required, the cause can’t be worthy; but the fact remains that careful scholarship is often at odds with popular success—and popular success is what advocates aim for.

I think Zinn faced just this dilemma in this book, forced to choose between a work that would satisfy academics and would sell well, and he chose popularity. Granted, given the constraints of a popular book, I think he is decently honest with his sources. And it is worth noting that Zinn is frank about his political biases and goals. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious that he relies on books—again, mostly secondary sources—that are broadly sympathetic with his views; that he selectively quotes those who aren’t; and that he questions the motivations of any who disagree with him. What we must ask, then, is this: Does Zinn’s moral aim excuse this approach?

I think, on the whole, it does. At the time Zinn first wrote this book, history books used in public schools were unabashedly nationalistic, omitting labor movements, women’s movements, civil rights movements, and pushing aside the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. In other words, the history commonly taught and known was a history of presidents and elections, wars and victories, a history that ignored large swaths of underprivileged people. Of course Zinn didn’t change this single-handedly; he was the beneficiary of an entire academic movement. But his book, by its popularity, played an important role in changing the status quo. By the time I went to school, we had units on women’s movements, labor movements, and the barbarous mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans. It is also largely thanks to Zinn, I believe, that there is a growing movement against the celebration of Columbus Day (a person who I don’t think we ought to celebrate).

It is eminently right that the injustices and oppressions and inequities of American history be laid before the public. For history is never a neutral series of facts. Every political ideology relies on some historical narrative. Thus, systematically omitting episodes of history is equivalent to squelching certain political views. And even though I am not always in agreement with its ideology, I think that the United States suffers from its lack of a strong leftist movement.

Just recently, the political power of history has been dramatically demonstrated through the conflict over Civil War statues. More and more people are coming to the conclusion, I think rightly, that having statues of Confederate generals is not politically neutral. Of course we must learn and commemorate history. But it is impossible to remember and commemorate everything. We are always faced with a choice; and this choice is shot through with ideological questions. What we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it, is a moral issue; and I think Zinn is right to remind us of the struggles of the unprivileged and powerless against the privileged and powerful—not for their sake, but for ours.

This, in brief, is why I generally approve of this book. But I do have many criticisms.

Most superficially, I think this book suffers from a lack of organization. Many chapters feel like hasty cut-and-paste jobs, jumping from topic to topic, summarizing and quoting from different sources, without anything more than a sense of outrage to tie it together. In this way, the book is bizarrely reminiscent of a a Bill Bryson work: a hodgepodge of stories, thrown together in a loose jumble. I also think that Zinn should have highlighted more individual stories and condensed some tedious lists of movements, if only for dramatic effect.

More seriously, I think that Zinn commits the moral error of many on the left: by holding people to a stringent standard, the important moral differences between groups are minimized. This was most noticeable on his chapters on the Civil War and World War II, in which Zinn goes to lengths to undermine the moral superiority of the North and of the United States. I absolutely agree with Zinn that the North was hardly a utopia of freedom and equality (racism was almost universal), and that the United States was hardly a shinning beacon on a hill (think of the Japanese internment camps, the Dresden bombing, or the nuclear bombings). Nevertheless, I think that, with all their inequities and injustice, the Union and the United States were clearly preferable to the slave-owning Confederate or Nazi Germany. Minimizing this difference is dangerous.

I also object to the way that Zinn makes it seem as though the United States is controlled by a vast conspiracy, or that all the elements of power work together in one seamless ‘system’ (one of Zinn’s favorite words). He does, at one point, acknowledge that this system arose unconsciously, through necessity and in stages, and is not, for the most part, used intentionally by the powerful. But this, then, leads to the question: What is the difference between an unconsciously developed and unintentionally used system of control, and no ‘system’ at all?

Or consider this paragraph:

The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to a small number who are not pleased.

Zinn’s message is clear: that this is an unjust situation created by powerful people. But think about what he is saying: The United States is a country where most people are content and where the discontented are allowed to express themselves. Phrased like this, the observation looses its outraged and semi-conspiratorial edge; indeed it doesn’t seem so bad at all. I cite this only as an example of Zinn’s use of rhetoric and insinuation to make political points, a dishonest habit. Another bad habit is his tendency to question the motivation of the people he intends to criticize. Every reform or government action aimed at equality is, for Zinn, just a concession aimed at promoting the long-term stability of ‘the system.’ Again, this leads to the question: What, in practice, is the difference between a self-interested concession and an honest attempt at reform?

I also want to note that Zinn’s effort to write a “people’s” history became, at times, a thin pretense. This was obvious whenever the general opinion didn’t match his own. Zinn was not simply chronically “the people”; he consistently chooses to focus on those who shared his ideals, whether they represented the majority or a small minority. This was most obvious in the chapter on the Second World War, which focuses on the small group of people who disapproved of it. But it was a tendency throughout. Here is a typical passage:

After the bombing of Iraq began with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush’s action [Bush Sr.], and this continued through six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizen’s long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.

This is special pleading at its worst. The people’s opinion, when it disagrees with Zinn’s opinion, is of course not really their opinion; it is just manipulation. But when the people do agree with Zinn, it is of course their “true” opinion.

This, by the way, is another nasty habit of the left: a pretense to knowing the true interests of the unprivileged, even if the unprivileged themselves disagree with the left and among each other. Thus all the differences that divide the unprivileged—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia among the poor—are both excused and then dismissed as being superficial differences that mask a true unity, perhaps even instilled by the powerful to divide the poor. In a way this is a disrespectful view of “the people,” since Zinn apparently thinks that most people are far more easily manipulated than he is himself, and thus should be judged by a more lenient standard than the crafty powerful.

I am heaping a lot of criticism on Zinn; but I do think that, despite all this, Zinn is almost always on the morally right side: for equality, for pacifism, for democracy. And even though, largely thanks to Zinn, many of the episodes he covered in this book have made their way into school curriculums and the national awareness, I still learned a great deal from reading this. Both the Mexican-American War (which, to protest, Thoreau spent a night in jail) and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in prolonged, brutal fighting in the Philippines), two American power-grabs, still receive scant coverage in classrooms. And the long, ignominious history of U.S. intervention throughout the world, propping up dictators and plotting to topple governments, is still not widely known—and it should be.

I think Zinn has already been quite successful in changing people’s perception of history. But is this book inspiring or motivational? On the one hand, Zinn is a powerful writer whose every line carries a sense of justified outrage; and outrage, as Zinn shows, is what motivates many to fight for change. On the other, Zinn portrays movement after movement trying and failing—only about one in ten even partially succeeds, it seems—which can easily create a fatalistic cynicism. I was often reminded of the Onion article: “Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative to Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything.

It’s a joke, I know, but I do wonder about this. In a way this is the issue raised by—heaven help us—Game of Thrones: Is it really better, morally speaking, to be an idealist like Ned Stark, if that leads to your defeat at the hands of less scrupulous parties? This is one of the oldest questions in politics; and the way you answer it determines, to some extent, where you fall on the political spectrum. Zinn represents one answer, and I think it is one we too often forget in our cynical age.

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Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Turnstiles
Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.


*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

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Review: How the Other Half Lives

Review: How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half LivesHow the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Millions of immigrants came to the United States during Jacob Riis’s lifetime, and a great many of them landed on an island: Manhattan. Sadly, thousands of these hopeful souls ended up on another island: Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, where the indigent dead are buried.

This island is still in use, by the way. Twice a week, a ferry comes bearing corpses in simple pine coffins, which are buried in mass graves dug out by bulldozers, with prisoners paid fifty cents an hour acting as pall-bearers. It was only in 2015, almost 150 years after the island began being used as a cemetery, that relatives were given permission to visit the island. Before that, the bodies disappeared completely—off limits to the public, isolated by the sea, out of the sight and out of mind. (Click here to see the New York Times’s excellent story about the island.)

I mention Hart Island, not only because it was already in use back in Jacob Riis’s day (he took a seminal photo of a burial there), but because it is a perfect example of how the city’s poor can be made invisible. In writing this book, Jacob Riis explicitly tried to combat this invisibility. He wanted to bring home to middle-class readers just how bad life in the tenements could be.

Riis was a precursor to the muckraking journalism made famous by Upton Sinclair and his ilk, who came a generation later. In Riis’s case, the term “muckraker” is almost literally accurate, since it was grime he was trying to document. Immigrants from all over the world were pouring into New York City, many of them desperately poor, and housing simply did not keep up with the need. And because there were few building regulations on the books, this resulted in squalid and unsanitary tenements—shabby and dark (many rooms had no windows), and totally packed as families took on lodgers to afford the rent. The overcrowding not only made the buildings fire hazards, but also centers of disease.

Jacob Riis first experienced the plight of the poor when he arrived in New York City fresh from Denmark, aged twenty-one, trying to find work as a carpenter. He struggled for years to get by, occasionally sleeping in police lodging houses alongside beggars and street urchins. When he eventually found his vocation as a journalist, he wound up accompanying the police in nightly patrols of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. He wrote articles about what he saw; and one of them was so successful that he eventually expanded it into How the Other Half Lives.

I must say that this book is not a very compelling read. The prose is fine, but Riis is not a natural story-teller. The writing drifts on in an aimless, impressionistic way, never quite cohering into a cogent overview of the situation. The book itself is somewhat jumbled, with each chapter focusing on one aspect of the poor neighborhoods—stale-beer dives, lodging houses, “street Arabs,” paupers, and so on. You quickly learn that, however indignant Riis may be on behalf of the poor, he is not above racial bigotry. He has an unkind word for nearly every group—Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese. To his credit, however, he is relatively progressive on the subject of the color line between blacks and whites.

I don’t know if this is true, but I quickly got the impression that Riis never actually spoke with the poor people he took upon himself to document. He mentions a few casual conversations, but no distinct individual emerges. To Riis, the poor seem to be nameless masses, with an ethnicity but not an identity. You occasionally wonder whether Riis is outraged by the injustice of the situation or is simply disgusted by the filth. This complete lack of individual stories contributes to the book’s underwhelming impact. Probably I am judging this book a little harshly, though, since I read this book concurrently with Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the comparison is not flattering for Riis.

There was one area, however, in which Riis excelled: photography. This edition has over one hundred of his photographs, and they are stunning. Riis was able to capture things nobody had before, since he was one of the first field journalists to use flash photography. The early generation of flash cameras used a pistol-like device that was extremely loud and fairly hazardous; twice Riis set fire to the room he was in. Later, he switched to a method that required him to heat the flash powder in a frying pan. The world before smart phones was harsh indeed. Considering these technical limitations, Riis’s photographs are all the more remarkable: candid, dramatic, and sensitive.

It is all too easy to criticize this book from the perspective of the present. Really, Riis is impressive by any measure. He learned English late in life and writes better prose than most of us. He was a brilliant pioneer of photography, and of muckraking journalism. He even had a small hand in the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct, since he documented unsanitary water supplies, as well as the New York Subway, since he was among the reformers who advocated for improved transportation to lessen population density in the slums. Most importantly, despite his flaws, he believed that society had an obligation to its least privileged members, and could not avert its eyes with a clear conscience.

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