Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book did not conform to my expectations, and this is often a cause of bitterness with me. I opened Winesburg, Ohio thinking that it would be a series of carefully-plotted, intersecting short stories illustrating the reality of small-town life in America. And I was excited for this hypothetical book, since it seemed like a wonderful concept. But Anderson had quite different ideas, and his were far less to my taste.

For one, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio have very little in the way of plot, and so they can hardly weave an intricate tapestry. The effect is not that of a carefully worked-out machine, but if a simple accumulation. What is more, this is hardly a work of realism in any meaningful sense. Anderson is not one for sensory details, nor for social analysis; his world is composed of individual souls residing in a shadowy world. The stories could have taken place just as easily in Winesburg as in Warsaw, since Anderson’s fundamental concern is something much more universal.

The insistent message of these stories is that people are bound up within themselves, their inner passions shut off from the world, and they have little idea how to rectify their situation. Thus, the stories follow a characteristic pattern: The protagonist’s frustrated dreams and desires are narrated, and then a crisis follows in which the character tries, unsuccessfully, to disburden herself of this frustration. This usually takes the form of a frantic encounter with George Willard, the young town reporter. The story ends as soon as the crisis is shown to be unsuccessful.

I have many criticisms of these stories. Anderson is as guilty as any author can be of telling and not showing. His stories consist almost entirely of narration. What is worse, I often found the narration unsuccessful, as Anderson seems allergic to the use of vivid, concrete details. We are never in the moment with a character, never able to watch a scene unfold in our mind’s eye. Someone extremely sympathetic to Anderson’s style may argue that this creatures a distance between the reader and the story which mirrors the emotional distance between Anderson’s characters. In my case, however, the result was often apathy or bemusement.

As an example of his style, consider this passage:

There was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift. Everyone felt it. In the schoolroom she was silent, cold, and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils. Once in a long while something seemed to have come over her and she was happy. All of the children in the schoolroom felt the effect of her happiness. For a time they did not work but sat back in their chairs and looked at her.

This passage is characteristic in its almost total lack of sensory information. Indeed it seems intentionally vague: “in an odd way,” “something came over her,” “felt the effect”—these phrases suggest that Anderson himself was not interested in really picturing to himself how this strange scene could actually play out. It also shows a kind of curious anti-realism when it comes to describing human behavior. As somebody who has worked as a teacher, I can scarcely imagine the reaction of young pupils to a mysteriously happy teacher being to simply look at her. Has Anderson ever been around a child?

Of course, an author is under no obligation to describe people as behaving realistically. Nevertheless, I think that this oddity is symptomatic of one of the paradoxes in these short stories: though they are about the innermost struggles of different individuals, Anderson seems rather uninterested in his characters as individuals. The persons in this book can hardly be called individuals, in fact, but are mere points of tension. They have problems but no personalities, and once their crisis is over they have no further interest. The way that Anderson writes dialogue is particularly infelicitous—unnatural to the point that it must have been intentional, but which nevertheless struck me as jarring. Luckily, there is not much of it.

What perhaps struck me most about these stories is how strongly they reminded me of a lot of contemporary writing. The idea that we are all silently suffering, or that, in Anderson’s own words, “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”—and, most importantly, that emotional expression will fix this problem—this strikes me as a profoundly limited worldview. For my part, I do not think that emotional connection alone is enough to solve any problem, unless it is supplemented by a thoughtful empathy—the ability to see humans in the round and not as simply balls of frustrated passions.

Indeed, as Lionel Trilling argues in his excellent essay on Anderson, the paradox of this philosophy is that it can lead to a world just as cold and brutal as one of repressed desires. And yet, this is an idea that I encounter again and again: that all we need is emotional expression. Expression is easy, however, while understanding is infinitely more difficult.

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Review: The Works of Archimedes

Review: The Works of Archimedes

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fact, how many theorems in geometry which have seemed at first impracticable are in time successfully worked out!

Many of the most influential and ingenious books ever written possess the strange quality of being simultaneously exhilarating and quite boring. Unless you are among that rare class of people who enjoy a mathematical demonstration more than a symphony, this book will likely possess this odd duality. I admit this is the case for me. Reading this book was a constant exercise in fighting the tendency for my eyes to glaze over. But I am happy to report that it is worth the trouble.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, somewhat after Euclid, in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Apart from this, not much else can be said with certainty about the man. But he is the subject of many memorable stories. Everybody knows, for example, the story of his taking a bath and then running through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” We also hear of Archimedes using levers to move massive boats, and claiming that he could move the whole earth if he just had a place to stand on. Even his death is the subject of legend. After keeping the invading Romans at bay using ingenious weapons—catapults, cranes, and even mirrors to set ships afire—Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, too preoccupied with a mathematical problem to care for his own well-being.

True or not, good stories tend to accumulate around figures who are worthy of our attention. And Archimedes is certainly worthy. Archimedes did not leave us any extended works, but instead a collection of treatises on several topics. The central concern in these different works—the keystone to Archimedes’s method—is measurement. Archimedes set his brilliant mind to measuring things that many have concerned impossible to reckon. His work, then, is an almost literal demonstration of the human mind’s ability to scan, delimit, and calculate things far outside the scope of our experience.

As a simple example of this, Archimedes established the ratios between the surface areas and volumes of spheres and cylinders—an accomplishment the mathematician was so proud of that he apparently asked for it to be inscribed on his tombstone. Cicero describes coming across this tombstone in a dilapidated state, so perhaps this story is true. Archimedes also set to work on giving an accurate estimation of the value of pi, which he accomplished by inscribing and circumscribing 96-sided polygons around a circle, and calculating their perimeters. If this sounds relatively simple to you, keep in mind that Archimedes was operating without variables or equations, in the wholly-geometrical style of the Greeks.

Archimedes’s works on conoids, spheroids, and spirals show a similar preoccupation with measurement. What all of these figures have in common is, of course, that they are composed of curved lines. How to calculate the areas contained by such figures is not at all obvious. To do so, Archimedes had to invent a procedure that was essentially equivalent to the modern integral calculus. That is, Archimedes used a method of exhaustion, inscribing and circumscribing ever-more figures composed of straight lines, until an arbitrarily small gap remained between his approximations and what he was attempting to measure. To employ such a method in an age before analytic geometry had even been invented is, I think, an accomplishment difficult to fully appreciate. When the calculus was finally invented, about two thousand years later, it was by men who were “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In his time, Archimedes had few shoulders to stand on.

The most literal example of Archimedes’s concern with measurement is his short work, The Sand Reckoner. In this, he attempts to calculate the number of grains of sand that would be needed to fill up the whole universe. We owe to this bizarre little exercise our knowledge of Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient astronomer who argued that the sun is positioned at the center of the universe. Archimedes mentions Aristarchus because a heliocentric universe would have to be considerably bigger than a geocentric one (since there is no parallax observed of the stars); and Archimedes wanted to calculate the biggest universe possible. He arrives at a number is quite literally astronomical. The point of the exercise, however, is not in the specific number arrived at, but in formulating a way of writing very large numbers. (This was not easy in the ancient Greek numeral system.) Thus, we partly owe to Archimedes our concept of orders of magnitude.

Archimedes’s contributions to natural science are just as significant as his work in pure mathematics. Indeed, one can make the case that Archimedes is the originator of our entire approach to the natural sciences; since it was he who most convincingly demonstrated that physical relationships could be described in purely mathematical form. In his work on levers, for example, Archimedes shows how the center of gravity can be found, and how simple principles can explain the mechanical operation of counterbalancing weights. Contrast this with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Physics, who uses wholly qualitative descriptions and categories to give a causal explanation of physical motion. Archimedes, by contrast, pays no attention to cause whatever, but describes the physical relationship in quantitative terms. This is the exact approach taken by Galileo and Newton.

Arguably, the greatest masterpiece in this collection is On Floating Bodies. Here, Archimedes describes a physical relationship that still bears his name: the relationship of density and shape to buoyancy. While everyone knows thpe story of Archimedes and the crown, it is possible that Archimedes’s attention was turned to this problem while working on the design for an enormous ship, the Syracusia, built to be given as a present to Ptolemy III of Egypt. This would explain Book II, which is devoted to finding the resting position of several different parabolas (more or less the shape of a ship’s hull) in a fluid. The mathematical analysis is truly stunning—so very far beyond what any of his contemporaries were capable of that it can seem even eerie in its sophistication. Even today, it would take a skilled physicist to calculate how a given parabola would rest when placed in a fluid. To do so in ancient times was simply extraordinary.

Typical of ancient Greek mathematics, the results in Archimedes’s works are given in such a way that it is difficult to tell how he originally arrived at these conclusions. Surely, he did not follow the steps of the final proof as it is presented. But then how did he do it? This question was answered quite unexpectedly, with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest in the early 1900s. This was a medieval prayer book that contained the remains of two previously unknown works of Archimedes. (Parchment was so expensive that scribes often scraped old books off to write new ones; but the faded impression of the original work is still visible on the manuscript.) One of these works was the Ostomachion, a collection of different shapes that can be recombined to form a square in thousands of different ways (and it was the task of the mathematician to determine how many).

The other was the Method, which is Archimedes’s account of how he made his geometrical discoveries. Apparently, he did so by clever use of weights and balances, imagining how different shapes could be made to balance one another. His method of exhaustion was also a crucial component, since it allowed Archimedes to calculate the areas of irregular shapes. A proper Greek, Archimedes considered mechanical means to be intellectually unsatisfactory, and so re-cast the results obtained using this method into pure geometrical form for his other treatises. If it were not for the serendipitous discovery of this manuscript, and the dedicated work of many scholars, this insight into his method would have been forever lost to history.

As I hope you can see, Archimedes was a genius among geniuses, a thinker of the rarest caliber. His works are exhilarating demonstrations of the power of the human mind. And yet, they are also—let us admit it—not the most exciting things to read, at least for most of us mere mortals. Speaking for myself, I would need a patient expert as a guide if I wanted to understand any of these works in detail. Even then, it would be hard work. Indeed, I have to admit that, on the whole, I find mathematicians to be a strange group. For the life of me I cannot get excited about the ratio of a sphere to a cylinder—something that Archimedes saw as the culmination of his entire life.

Archimedes is the very embodiment of the man absorbed in impractical pursuits—so obsessed with the world of spirals and curves that he could not even avoid a real sword thrust his way. And yet, if subsequent history has shown anything, it is that these apparently impractical, frigid, and abstract pursuits can reveal deep truths about the universe we live in—much deeper than the high-flown speculations of our philosophers. I think this lesson is worth suffering through a little boredom.



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Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

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Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



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Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Economics by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is one subject that causes me perpetual unease. Everybody cares about the economy, of course, and everybody argues about how it should be structured and managed. Imposing terminology is thrown around, graphs and statistics are wheeled out, and yet the situation always seems quite unclear to me. So I was pleased when Timothy Taylor framed his lectures, not as the gospel truth of economics, but as an introduction to the language of economics. Learning this language is essential if you would like to take part in this endless societal argument.

Considering the restraints of time and of format, I think that Taylor deserves praise for these lectures. In 18 hours, he manages to cover all of the major topics of micro- and macro-economics—supply and demand, price curves, government regulation, fiscal policy, etc.—in an accessible but not overly simplistic style. Further, Taylor is an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm for a potentially dreary subject helps to alleviate the dryness. Someone has got to get excited about interest rates, I suppose.

A major shortcoming of these lectures is that they were recorded in 2005, just before the enormous financial crash. Surely, a new edition is called for. Considering how much time has passed, however, I think that these lectures have held up remarkably well. For the most part, the major disagreements and issues in economics do not seem to have changed very much. Everything is here—healthcare costs, financial crashes, trade wars, deficits—which is probably not a reason to celebrate.

If Taylor can be criticized, I think it should be for inserting too many of his own views into these lectures. Some degree of editorializing is inevitable in any academic course, I think. But Taylor is quite an opinionated guide, and never hesitates to advocate for his pet policies. Admittedly this did make the lectures more interesting at times; but it also undermined Taylor’s insistence that economics is merely a way of thinking rather than a specific doctrine. To the contrary, these lectures contain very specific presumptions about and prescriptions for a successful society (hint: it is all about a free market).

Speaking more generally, it is frustrating for me the degree to which the social sciences inhabit parallel worlds. Not only do anthropology, psychology, and economics study different sorts of phenomena, but they make very different assumptions about human behavior—which often contradict one another. I was acutely aware of this while listening to these lectures, since I was concurrently reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which argues that the rational agent model of economic actors is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, my brother is reading anthropologist David Graebner’s book about the many different (non-capitalist) ways that economic activity has been carried out throughout time and across space.

Compared to psychology and anthropology, economics can seem worrisomely abstract to me—too content to rest its conclusions on untested assumptions and a priori principles. In these lectures, for example, I would have appreciated more case studies of historical examples in lieu of theoretical explanations. This would have illustrated the concepts’ usefulness far more effectively, I think.

But I am drifting off topic. As a painless introduction to economics, these lectures do an admirable job. It is a fascinating discipline with much to teach us. I am glad to have a break for now, though. A dismal science indeed.



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Review: the Martian Chronicles

Review: the Martian Chronicles

Crónicas marcianas by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am not sure that I am in the best position to judge this short story collection, since the circumstances of my reading it were far from optimal. I downloaded the audio version to pass the time on a long drive, and I decided on the Spanish translation since my co-pilot would have fallen asleep otherwise. I soon discovered that listening to a foreign-language book while navigating mountain roads is not conducive to careful appreciation (or careful driving).

This is much closer to a short-story collection than to a conventional novel, but Bradbury blurred the lines a bit by adding some connecting passages to his stories (originally published separately). It is really only the setting and a vague sense of chronology that connects the separate chapters. And despite his post-facto additions, Bradbury did not achieve full consistency in his Martian world. This is not a problem, however, since I think the inconsistency adds to the stories rather than detracts. The final effect is much like an episodic TV show, which can invent itself anew with each iteration.

Bradbury has become known as a science-fiction writer; and yet these stories may be more accurately described as “anti-science fiction.” He has little interest in the details of technology, cosmology, or space travel, and even less interest in making his stories plausible or realistic. Indeed, Bradbury is not merely uninterested, but positively worried about what the future may bring. For Bradbury, Mars is not the fourth planet from the sun—with its own moons, its unique geology, its practical challenges—but a kind of parallel world where his fears can play out. Much like The Twilight Zone, these stories have one consistent message: “Be careful what you wish for.” Where other people saw the dawning of the space age, Bradbury saw only an extension of human idiocy beyond the clouds.

Arguably, this is quite a conservative message—anti-science, anti-technology, anti-change—but it also resonated with me. I remember being a little kid and contemplating the wonders that the future would bring: flying cars, tourism to the moon, miracle cures. Nowadays, this mood of optimism seems very distant. New technologies, rather than filling us with wonder, are prompting second-thoughts: automation that reduces job opportunities, face-recognition technology that only extends the surveillance state, or the unknown threat of artificial intelligence. And when I think of space travel, rather than imagining the next glorious phase of humanity’s ascent, two buffoons come to mind: Elon Musk (with his SpaceX) and Donald Trump (with his Space Force).

Well, I do not want to get too gloomy in a book review. My point is that Bradbury’s stories may indeed contain a valuable lesson: be careful what you wish for.



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Review: The Wright Brothers

Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


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

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

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

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

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



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Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

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

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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2019 in Books

2019 in Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Maya to Aztec

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

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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



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