Reading Rainbow

I think I need to do a better job of actually getting things written in the absence of inspiration. I tend to believe that this is important. Even if you see her regularly, you can’t trust the muse to be around every time you need to get something done. And I don’t see her regularly at all. I have ex-wives that I see more often, a fact that frames up my existence rather neatly.

Anyway, in light of that I’m going to push myself to be a little more diligent on the blog than I’ve been, accepting that I’m not going to have anything particularly great to to work though every single time I have an opportunity to write. It’ll be good for me, and the only one who suffers, dear reader, is you. Apologies for that, but we all have our little crosses to bear. Reading this blog, apparently, is yours.

Point being that while I haven’t been writing, these last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting some pretty decent reading done. Travel helps, as I can at least plan on having a few uninterrupted hours crammed into a middle seat, wherein there’s little to do but read. And If i’m Honest I actually don’t like to write on planes. I can’t do much to stop the people sitting behind and to the side of me from reading over my shoulder, which would be okay (it’s public work, after all) except that they’re reading it in draft. It’s the lowest ebb of pointless intellectual vanity to worry about a complete stranger watching me revise an awkwardly-phrased idea, but there you go.

However, one thing that people do actually ask me for, at least occasionally, is a rundown of what I’m reading. Which is flattering, as it’s a question that I tend to ask of people I actually like, and probably the last question I would ever ask of anyone I genuinely can’t stand. So following, and in no particular order, are notes on a few key bits of 2019 spring reading. There’s no coherent project going on here – just me grabbing things that interest me (or being gifted them by perceptive friends) and running with it. Proceed at your own risk.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, Chris Wickham

I’m a history guy no matter what, and have always found the overall period of late antiquity to be massively interesting. Besides, anything touching on the decline of empire seems topical nowadays. The actual historical details presented here defy easy historical allegory, but Wickham gives a hell of a survey not just of the decline of the Western Roman empire (though he does that with admirable clarity) but of the long Roman hangover that persisted throughout the Western world for centuries to follow. It’s a good refresher on the idea (again, topical) that empires don’t exactly fall, so much as they’re simultaneously dismantled and rebuilt, often one institution and tradition at a time. This process always looks more coherent in retrospect than it ever does in the moment. In the moment, the Roman empire had fallen long before any but the most keen-eyed observers recognized that it had. We assume that the fall of America is yet to be marked; we shouldn’t be surprised if we’ve already quietly missed it.

The Empire and the Five Kings , Bernard Henri-Levy

The overlap between Henri-Levy and Wickham was coincidental, but they’re marvelously complementary volumes. This one came to me by the unusually fervent recommendation of my step-father, which I trusted enough to order the book while he was still describing it to me. Now, I have to state at the outset that I’m not deeply familiar with BHL or his work, so I went in a bit blind. What I found, doing so, was a wickedly astute geopolitical analysis written in the kind of poetic language that only a prominent French public intellectual would even attempt in print. More, it’s the work of a French public intellectual who rejects rote anti-Americanism, which I didn’t even realize (again, I acknowledge my ignorance) was possible. The gist of the work is Henri-Levy’s lamentation of America’s withdrawal from the geopolitical stage (an event that he rightly associates with Barak Obama first, Trump second), leaving that stage open to the resurgent “kingdoms” of Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and radical Islam. It’s vividly argued, with kick-in-the-nuts intensity, and I set it down feeling more comfortable in my own innately hawkish political skin than I have in a long time. Anyone prepared to describe Recep Tayyip Erdogan as, “The troll beneath the bridge to hell” is welcome at my table.

Wittgenstein’s Poker , David Edmonds and John Eidinow

This fucking book. This is one of those things so well done and so comprehensively good that you just hate it even as you devour the damn thing and then hate it some more because you can’t stop talking about it. And then you love it because you don’t have any choice. Which makes you hate it more.

Jenn gave this one to me, and for her sins she heard way more about it over the next couple of weeks than she’d ever bargained for. The synopsis doesn’t really tell you much; it’s nominally “about” the first and last meeting between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at Cambridge in 1946, a brief encounter that ended with Wittgenstein brandishing a fireplace poker in what might or might not have been a threatening manner. But the event itself is a small, central point around which the rest of the story (and it really works out to be a story, and a compelling one) crystalizes. Riffing on the central theme, the authors weave biography, history, social and cultural commentary, and a remarkably coherent pursuit of several major threads in the analytical tradition of Western philosophy into a stupidly satisfying narrative. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that no one really knows, definitively, what happened with the poker incident, but I came away with a far better understanding of the whole philosophical domain that shaped these two rather awful men that I’d had going in. There’s a whole pedagogical implication here that’s worth thinking about, but at the same time, it’s a book you can happily enjoy while drinking. Maybe that is the pedagogical implication.

The Second Mountain , David Brooks

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what? I can read what I want, okay? He’s a conservative columnist for the New York Times, after all. That, like, doesn’t even count.

Anyway, America’s most dour moral philosopher is back, and I took the bait. I’m not sure if there happen to be a lot of books out right now by middle aged men either in or emerging from crisis, or if there always have been and I’m just noticing them because I’m a middle aged man emerging from crisis myself. Having been through a divorce (feel you, fam) and a period of messy spiritual awakening (it happens), Brooks has put together a perspective on what it means to fall from the first half of your life, and dig more meaningfully into the second. It’s the kind of book that’s either wide-ranging or all over the place, depending on how much of it you agree with. I’m kind of in the middle on that one.

Nah, seriously, I don’t agree with everything ol’ DLB has ever said but I admire the guy and would crack a bottle of cabernet with him, and everybody’s just going to have to deal with that. I won’t go down the usual route and say that he’s not a “real” conservative. I think he is a real conservative, with a conservative’s reverence for institutions and tradition, and with a deep wariness of transformative change. As a political pessimist, I’m with him on a lot of that. The guys running around Washington nowadays calling themselves conservatives are anything but. Trump and his ilk are wild-eyed radicals with enormous faith in the most deeply flawed of humans – the exact opposite of conservatism. That said, I have my critiques, and where Brooks’ book is weakest is when it strives to break away from the personal and run right up the middle of the whole thousand-points-of-light message of redemptive social change through private initiative, which has aged about as well as everything else from 1992 has.

Put another way, when Brooks is writing about his own experience and those of other people going through the wilderness years of a jack-knifed existence, he’s got a lot to say. His sections on marriage, intimacy and religion were, for me, worthy of both reading and reflection. But his final prescription for it all falls back to age-old political doggerel. It’s not government or the state that can redeem us, but individual initiative at the community level, led by brave folks picking up all the slack that the state has left untended. I’ll probably pick up that argument in more detail in a later post, but it reads as an unsatisfying return, late in an otherwise decent game, to a somewhat tired set of talking points. Actually I will pick it up again. This is worth discussing.

But, enough of all that. I’ll get back to my own unreasoned opinions in the days to come. It was also my birthday this week, bringing me one year closer to death, so look for some further rumination on mortality sooner than later. It had better be sooner, if I’m going to get to it at all.

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