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The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion
Melvin Lerner

Waste of time

Demian - Hermann Hesse This is the kind of book I'd have eaten up when I was in my early 20s, I think. It's one of those novels of ideas, and the ideas are vague enough that one can project one's own feelings on them. That's one reason it would have appealed to me. Also, I was a young man struggling with what I thought/knew and what I wanted to be, like most young men. So I think I could see reading this 10+ years ago and thinking it was pretty decent. I liked Steppenwolf back then too. (And I wonder how I'd feel now.) But I have no time for shit like this; I really don't. This book may have connected to a feeling some people (mostly German) were feeling as WWI came to an end, but that doesn't make that feeling particularly universal and it sure doesn't make the wishy washy "philosophy" in this book hold up over time. This is the kind of weak spiritualism and wilfully stupid belief in destiny that I not only cannot abide any more in art, but that I now view as politically dangerous. (I've read Nietzsche too, and I don't get the things Hesse does from him.) If these ideas weren't so vague - and if the "premonitions" weren't so clearly written with the benefit of hindsight - maybe this would be less ridiculous, but the idea that there is a select few who are marked for special beliefs and who can interpret the "signs" is both patently ridiculous and dangerous. It has no basis in reality and it's also the kind of idiotic ego-stroking that is the last thing young men actually need. (To grow up, I believe, young men need to learn their unimportance in the grand scheme of things, not the opposite.) It's kind of bizarre that this book is viewed as a "mature" work by Hesse. Maybe it's because I'm so divorced from his time and place, but this to me feels like the yearnings of someone who hasn't yet actually accepted reality for what it is - who is still fighting (pointlessly and fruitlessly) against the actual world. Don't bother.

A mixed bag

The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies - Anna Porter

Great

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach

The same book, over and over again

Turning Pro - Steven Pressfield

At this point, Pressfield has made a second writing career out of inspiring others to write. This is the third book of his I've read, and they get less effective each time I read a new one.

Why? Because basically they are all the same book. Pressfield is passionate about writing something that compels us to write, but he gives the same advice in each book, with only slight permutations (even quoting from The War of Art here). Your much better off buying War of Art (or something you find more effective) and just re-reading that one book. I don't know why we need 4 (or more) versions of the same book. And I don't know why we need it packaged to look far more substantial than it actually is.

Not great but still worthwhile for older men

Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You're 80 and Beyond - Chris Crowley, Henry S. Lodge This is a book about exercise, nutrition and mental health, geared towards retired American men. I didn't actually finish the book; I read it until it was due back a the library and so was most of the way through when I returned it. I do not feel like I mise

One of the most important books you'll ever read

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - Steven Pinker

Dated

The Good Soldier - Ford Maddox Ford

Sometimes I can handle stories of the idle rich, sometimes I cannot. This is one of the latter, where I really struggled to care about any of the characters, their rich, bored lives and their endless emotional struggles.

I can understand why this novel is so well regarded: it exposed the fraud of "keeping up appearances," it is told in, what was, for the time, an extremely unconventional way, with what I assume is one of the earlier uses of an unreliable narrator. These things should be celebrated.

But I have a really hard time relating to these rich, religious, "proper" people and that makes it much harder to appreciate the literary techniques. Moreover, there is a strong hint of misogyny towards Florence in particular. I understand that the narrator's views are typical of the time, and he really does eventually label Edward a "villain," but for much of the book it seems to be Florence who is the awful person, something that is rather hard to take, given that she is just about the only interesting character.

Ah well, I've finished it. And I get why it's celebrated. I just didn't like it.

Adocacy, but informative advocacy

Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism - Thomas E. Patterson

This book was written to make the case for "knowledge-based" journalism. It was sponsored by an initiative that is trying to establish that kind of journalism. The author believes strongly in the cause ans has been a crucial part of the initiative that sponsored his work here.

But despite the fact that this is very much a work of advocacy, it is a compelling and informative read, touching on the history of American journalism (print, radio, TV and internet) as it explores the issues that have arisen with the rise of "Infotainment" and "Citizen journalism." Though I question the methodologies of some of the studies cited, and I am not as optimistic as the author, I think he makes a good case for a journalism revival through better education of journalists.

I will say he loves Walter Lippman way too much, and the complete American focus is also a bit of a downside for someone who isn't living in the US.

An '80s Catcher in the Rye?

Less Than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis

On some level, this feels like an '80s LA Catcher in the Rye, albeit with richer and older kids, and drugs and prostitution. I feel like this may have been Ellis' intent, I also think that the acclaim that greeted it upon its release likely was due, in part to that comparison, however misguided.

Holden is a compelling character because so many of us can relate to him, if not his situation (I never went to boarding school). Clay is not as relatable - few of us are this rich and few of us are this world weary at 18. But the latter is part of the comment - this is, apparently, what happens when too rich people neglect their children.

The book is written almost as if it was noir or detective fiction, despite not much of a plot and a not particularly mysterious mystery. But this is to its credit and creates more tension than there otherwise would be. In fact, the despite Clay's behaviour and thoughts (which are, at times, hard to empathize with), the style makes you keep turning the page, even though none of these people are likable.

On the whole, I think, it works. Whether or not its exaggerated and whether or not mid '80s LA was an easy target. But if I am going to go for novels about disaffection, I'll take Catcher in the Rye (for teenagers) or The Moviegoer (for rich adults) any day.

There are a lot of books like this

The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors - Hal Niedzviecki

This is a relatively interesting and amusing book about how modern technology and modern culture have created a brave new world that we don't really understand how to navigate (and which could have all sorts of unintended consequences for us. However, the book suffers from a number of problems which make it not among the best books to examine this particular moment in human history (and there are a lot of these books).

First, Niedzviecki tries to give all the different things he covers one name: Peep. Obviously that didn't stick. And the problem is that he comes off as one of those undergrads who thinks they know everything, diagnosing all our problems under his rubric. Had he been successful, and other people had taken up his concept, maybe this wouldn't have bugged me so much. But given that not a single other soul calls this stuff "Peep," it's hard to get behind. (Think of "fark," which was a far more celebrated naming of an internet phenomenon, at least at the time.)

Second, and far more importantly, this book was published in 2008. And like all books dealing with new technology in our day and age, things have changed. A lot. The best example - of numerous examples throughout the book - is Twitter, where even its creators don't seem to fully understand where Twitter was headed. The author treats it as basically a tool for oversharing. But the author cites numerous websites that have dwindled in popularity or disappeared, and services with the same fates. So it makes it much harder to take his fears seriously, as much as I may sympathize.

And there's a lot more opinion here than fact. Studies are cited, experts interviewed, but so much of the book is the author's subjective fears about the future.

And these fears undercut the conclusion in which the author takes a far more optimistic tone, one which he barely adopts throughout the previous chapters.

That being said, there were still some decent insights and I wasn't bored.

For fans only, I fear

Baudolino - Umberto Eco, R.C.S. Libri, William Weaver

This is a fairly uproarious comic novel about the fine line between truth and fiction, that also functions as a critique of medieval logic and reasoning and as a celebration/satire of the power of myth (and faith, and belief). But I felt a nagging sense of deja vu the entire time I was reading it.

Because, though the story is drastically different than Foulcault's Pendulum in terms of setting, characters and their goals, and the target of the critique - in this case the kind of backwards reasoning and reliance on belief over fact that gave us the ontological "argument" for the existence of God from St. Anselm, for example, of whom Eco himself once said "Saint Anselm's ontological argument is moronic...God must exist because I can conceive Him as a being perfect in all ways, including existence. The saint confuses existence in thought with existence in reality." - and though, from memory, this is a much funnier book than Pendulum, it still seems like he's making the same point and the general conceit seems the same. Namely, when people allow belief to determine or cloud their reasoning, they will eventually believe anything.

It feels like it has the exact same reason for existence as Eco's greatest novel. And so I say to you that you should read Foucault's Pendulum, the best satire of conspiracy theory I have ever read, than this novel, which is more of a satire of medieval imagination substituting for reason and argument, and which just feels like a spiritual sequel to - really, a retread of - Pendulum.

Eye-opening

Thomas Paine - Enlightenment, Revolution, & the Birth of Modern Nations (07) by Nelson, Craig [Paperback (2007)] - Thomas Nelson Publishers

I have only ever read The Rights of Man many years ago. I loved Paine's wit (there are many classic one-liners, including my favourite anti-monarchist barb of all time: "a hereditary monarch makes as much sense as a hereditary poet laureate") but found his philosophy superficial, probably because I had just left grad school.

This biography makes a compelling case for Paine being one of the greats of the enlightenment - man able to combine philosophical ideas with prose that was intelligible to the masses and who wrote about any number of topics (and even designed bridges!). In this version, Paine is an important figure worthy of serious study and as important (if not more so) as his contemporaries, with contributions to both philosophy and actual political life (including helping to draft multiple constitutions).

I have two nitpicks with the book.

The first is that Nelson loves Paine too much. He asks us to forgive Paine's faults, after all Paine is only a man. But Nelson does not extend the same courtesy to some the people who argued with Paine, particularly John Adams (who comes across as an absolutely awful person in this book) and Edmund Burke (whose position on the French Revolution is considered some kind of betrayal, both personal and political).

The second major issue is with Nelson's portrayal of Pitt the Younger's "terror." Nelson equates the suppression of free speech in England (something that was quite common at the time) with the Terror in France. I am nearly a free speech absolutist, but one cannot claim that jailing people for months for writing things is in any way the same as the mass murder of thousands of people. This is just absurd and downright preposterous. I really don't understand where Nelson is coming from here.

But those two things aside, this is a really interesting biography of one of the most important writers of his era.

Well worth your time.

SPOILER ALERT!

Great

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks - Christopher Brookmyre

This is not only  a well-done mystery but it is also a fine indictment of a certain kind of chicanery, one that drives me particularly crazy.

SPOILERS

I didn't warm to this at first because Brookmyre does an excellent job of suggesting that the reader is going to learn how real psych phenomena truly is. In the first chapters, I was actually getting frustrated, which just goes to show you the excellent job he does.

But the result is a damning indictment of psychics and mediums which is both engaging and funny. It's full of well-executed plot twists and only one or two groaning moments (including an absolutely terrible line in the last chapter).

And, in addition to this, Brookmyre ties his subject in with an attack on Neo-Conservatism, a fascinating link which I had not perceived myself, but one which I want to investigate further - the same credulity that allows for mystics allows for Neo-Conservative and other nonsense ideologies.

Anyway, just great stuff.

Our struggle is not just against financial capitalism but against authors who do not seek to be understood

The Violence Of Financial Capitalism (Semiotext(E) / Intervention) - Kristina Lebedeva, Christian Marazzi

It has been a long time since I've read a book this dense. A long time. Maybe grad school, maybe in the years after grad school when I tried to re-read or finish lots of books that I felt I hadn't spent enough time with in school. Either way, I don't think my brain is trained for this stuff any more. And, well, I never took economics. So that's a problem.

Marazzi is writing from the midst of the crisis (2010) and so much of what he says in the majority of the book is directed at things happening in 2010, or things that happened between 2007 and 2010. One needs an accompanying history of the financial crisis to fully understand what he's talking about (as he certainly feels no need to elaborate). I paid as much attention as I could at the time, but it's been years now and I am not able to remember the minutiae of the economic maneuvering that he is critiquing. Without some kind of explanation by the author, one needs a compendium or one needs to spend hours on the internet. And, frankly, I have better things to do with my time.

But in addition to this book's existence in a moment in time that we've mostly collectively forgotten, we have another problem: it's mostly written for (Italian?) post-Marxist economists. This is a jargon-heavy book where the author feels zero compulsion to explain what he means (until the Afterword). He thinks you should know. And, I mean, shouldn't we?

So it's a real struggle reading this. There's the odd clear insight, but so much of it is buried in two layers: one is the layer of time and distance from these events, the other is the layer of academic and financial jargon that smothers his argument. He is not a clear writer (in English) and the jargon just makes this worse.

Fortunately, the Afterword feels like it was written for the general public. Though still written in the midst of the crisis, it's much more direct in its writing and less reliant on jargon (and, when jargon is used, he sometimes deigns to explain it!).

But without a history of the crisis, it's hard for me to evaluate the points I don't fully comprehend (and/or the points made about events and policy decisions that I do not remember). And that's a problem for a book like this. It's worth mentioning that, in the glossary (which is barely referenced in the book, by the way...), Marazzi writes

Finance has its own language and, moreover, a rather esoteric neolanguage. Many Anglo-Saxon terms are unstranslatable into other languages and, above all, designate complex processes not always accessible to the uninitiated, which is to say, to almost everyone. It is thus under the shelter of this linguistic opacity that finance prospers, a situation which raises the question of democracy, that is, the possibility of publicly debating strategies, procedures, and decisions concerning the lives of all citizens.

Marazzi attacks others for being unclear so that we cannot criticize them and yet that is this book (and so many other academic books on economics and/or Marxism). Ugh.

Pretty much a classic

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

Dickens second novel is a landmark is socially conscious novels and I can well imagine the impact it had on the reading public, given not only its story of a helpless young boy, but also the description with which Dickens captures, with a great deal of vividness, the lives of the poorer people in greater London at the time. Dickens' irony and sarcasm in the opening chapters is particularly withering and you can imagine well-to-do people who thought themselves leading lights of humanity reading this book and having their hypocrisy and the true results of their efforts smacked in their faces.

The novel has dated rather a lot, however, as Dickens' story gets more preposterous as it goes and the ending feels not only absurdly happy, given the nature of the story, but a bit of a deus ex machina. However, it's hard to criticize him for that, given the other strengths of the book.

Worth your time

The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics - Kenan Malik

I have been reading Malik's blog for more than a few years at this point (I think), in part because I feel like he has much greater insight into the issues around jihadism than most of the people writing in North America (who I've had a chance to read). I find his approach not only measured - which is refreshing - but also imbued with a strong knowledge of the various cultures at play, and a knowledge of history. It is for this reason that I got this book.

To be honest, I was initially quite disappointed. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I guess I was expecting less of a retread through the other intellectual histories of the West I have read. Malik's treatment of the Greeks and the early Christians did not feel to me as if I was getting anything new out of it - rather it felt to me as though we had both read many of the same books. And though I appreciated his discussions of India, Chinese and Muslim ethics, the former two felt cursory in a way that surprised me. Is this all there is to their long histories?

The general sense that this wasn't the book I thought it was continued when I got to the sections on Nietzsche and Existentialism. I understand there are numerous problems with Nietzsche - I mean, that's sort of his thing, being difficult to interpret - but I feel like there's a balance to be struck with his work, between its path-breaking character and its potential dangers. But the bigger problem for me was the chapter on Existentialism, which focuses almost completely on Kierkegaard and Sartre (Dostoevsky is only briefly in relation to both this chapter and the Nietzsche chapter, Camus is also only briefly discussed). As an Existentialist myself, I felt like this was short shrift. There's a lot more within the tradition (if it can be called a tradition) than Sartre. To focus on late Sartre, when he pretty much renounced his original ideas, also seems problematic.

Existentialists foreground a crucial aspect of our lives, without which moral choice would become meaningless - freedom and responsibility. But in turning every moral choice into a "leap of faith." in unstitching choice from the rest of the architecture of our lives, existentialists transformed an important insight about the significance of human agency into an implausible demand detached from the reality of the human condition.

This is undoubtedly true of Kierkegaard - who we might regard as more of a "proto-Existentialist" - and it may be true, to an extent, of Sartre (whom I have not read in some time and whom I frankly dislike when it comes to his pure philosophy) but I hardly think it's true of Existentialism in g[eneral. Sure, choice is given primacy, but it is hardly unstitched - a huge appeal of Existentialism for me is that it places choice in the context of human history and human life. Sure, there is an insistence that, in theory, you can completely create everything anew, as Nietzsche might, but there is an acknowledgement by many of the thinkers, I believe, that this is a rather hard thing to do, given the history and society that we find ourselves in by accident.

Malik's attitude towards Existentialism is particularly baffling given these passages from the end of the book:

[Frankl's] understanding of humans as creators of value and as makers of meaning applies equally to humans as a collective. It is only through others that we find our individuality, and it is only through others that we come to appreciate the meaning of values and the value of meaning...

The human condition is, however, that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off the moral tightrope that we are condemned to walk as human beings. It can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. The choice is ours.

Is that not, really, the lesson of Existentialism? (Yes, yes, it depends on which Existentialist.)

For me, the real value to the book lies in its later chapters, as Malik uses his global history to inform the struggles in the West and in China in the modern era for how to come up with "objective" morals. The chapters on post-colonial and contemporary moral thought are particularly illuminating, given my unfamiliarity with these thinkers (beyond Peter Singer) but also given my own fears about Scientism. I agree with Malik that, though science can tell us lots of things, it cannot tell us about morality.

Also, I should mention that the chapter on Marx is quite interesting and refreshing, compared to some takes I've read.

This is the first history of moral thought I've read. Though I found it straying a little from the topic at times - and, due to my ignorance of the other traditions of the world, I wondered whether the focus couldn't be on additional ethical and moral thinkers from outside the West, Japan for example - I loved how he pulled the strands together in the final chapters. For example, Malik goes out of his way to take on The Abolition of Man, a book that nearly floored me when I first read it over a decade ago, before I had time to think deeply about Lewis' highly problematic argument. Malik's book provides a strong argument against people like CS Lewis, who want to claim that moral universalism/absolutism comes from the ether and therefore should be accepted.

As he says in the above quote, it is up to us how we sort out our moral problems, there aren't any extra-human rules we can just slap on to humanity.

I highly recommend this, particularly if you haven't read much western philosophy, because it's accessible in a way that so much philosophy isn't, and it's broad in its scope, in a way that other histories of philosophy that I have read are not.