September 30, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, September 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on threats to modern democracies, the history of China and Europe c. 1600, or the sociology of the French Revolution of 1789.

William DeAndrea, Killed in the Ratings, Killed in the Act, Killed with a Passion, Killed on the Ice, Killed in Paradise, Killed in Fringe Time, Killed in the Fog
Mind candy. Obviously (?), a series of mystery novels, in which the protagonist, a fixer for a major TV network (back in the days when such mattered, and could be counted on one hand) solves a variety of business-related murders. These were re-reads for me, and obviously somewhat formulaic, but I enjoyed them even after I induced the formula.
Thomas M. Nichols, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy
This is, essentially, two-hundred-plus pages of moralizing scolding (as Nichols himself describes it), on the theme that life in rich democracies is so comfortable, but also so bland, that many people make up life-or-death political struggles into which they insert themselves, to their own detriment and that of the commonwealth. We are, in short, failing to exhibit proper (small-r) republican virtue. Now, I happen to find this a congenial length and topic for a moralizing sermon — after all, I don't feel existentially threatened, but I do feel like many of my fellow Americans are losing it, and I'm happy to devote a Sunday in a comfortable hammock to reading any scold as eloquent as Nichols — but I'm nonetheless a bit unsatisfied.
If I treated the matter seriously, I would want to see more of a case that current politics are not an existential threat to the republic as we have known it. (If nothing else, treating every election as though it might be the last could be a self-fulfilling prophecy! Nichols himself seems deeply concerned about this very prospect.) I would also want an account of how the same populace can simultaneously be in the grips of amoral familism and of political hobbyism [*]. (If one group of citizens is shrinking away from public life, while a different group obsesses over public affairs as a sort of sporting contest, that suggests very different diagnoses and remedies than if individuals spasmodically alternate between idiotic indifference and febrile excitement.) Nor am I re-assured by the way Nichols cites Jean Twenge as an authority on widespread narcissism, and more generally on what social media are doing to our minds.
No doubt, if I were to write a wide-ranging book about how the whole the world world is in a terrible state of chassis, I would do no better when it comes to confirmation bias and internal consistency. But I believe Nichols could have done better, and I wish he had.
[*]: Nichols never uses that phrase, which we owe to the political scientist Eitan Hersh, but it quite aptly sums up what Nichols sees as a common pathology. Even more oddly, he never cites Hersh's work on that topic, despite it being very much aligned with Nichols's themes, and Hersh himself popularized it in The Atlantic, for which Nichols often writes.
Rebecca Pawel, Death of a Nationalist, Law of Return, The Watcher in the Pine, The Summer Snow, What Happened After the War Was Over
Mind candy. The first four titles are mystery novels set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The main character is a (literal, no-exaggeration) fascist* policeman, and nonetheless extremely sympathetic, even though, or because, the author makes it very plain her sympathies lie with the losing, socialist-republican side in the civil war. (That Carlos and Elena are destined to end up together, despite their politics, is, I contend, obvious to anyone, except perhaps Carlos or Elena.) The last book is a collection of short stories which explore the fates of important characters after 1945; I think stopping at the fourth book is fine, but I'm glad I read the fifth. I had previously read the first book, back in 2004, but I enjoyed the re-read as much as I enjoyed plowing through the rest of the series, which is to say, a lot.
*: Technically a Falangist rather than a Fascist, but that's a distinction without a real difference, as Tejada would himself explain.
Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
An engaging, and ultimately moving, portrait of both an individual and an age. Reading it makes me wonder at my own memory practices. You probably need some grounding in the history of both early modern Europe and early modern China to really get it, but if you have that background, it's a beautiful depiction of the work of cultural interchange.
(Thanks to AEO for lending me her copy, for discussing the book, and for allowing herself to be referred to.)
Paul McAuley, War of the Maps
Mind candy. This story of obsessive pursuit and alien invasion in a very, very old world --- one where we "Ur-Men" are a distant, reconstituted historical memory of a memory --- might not quite McAuley's best work, but it's still extremely good. Unusually for me, this was one where I alternated between the printed codex and the audiobook; I got so absorbed in the story that I didn't care.
Some of McAuley's self-expositions and excerpts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 7.
Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution
If I take the facts presented here at face value, this is an absolutely devastating attack on the conventional interpretation of the French Revolution as the great bourgeois revolution. If I credit the much later introduction by Gwynne Lewis, I should do no such thing. I am clearly in no position to hold an opinion on these questions, so I will just recommend this as an extremely well-written historical polemic, albeit one whose implied reader knows a lot of the detailed events of the Revolution.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; The Continuing Crises; Tales of Our Ancestors

Posted at September 30, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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