Briefly noted: Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opiate Epidemic — Sam Quinones

Dreamland is well-reported and consistently interesting, but its chapters are chopped into tiny pieces that interrupt narrative flow—the word dream is disrupted. Many if not most chapters are around 800 to a thousand words, yet the book covers several important threads: the rise and marketing of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharmaceutical; the drug sales practices of Xalisco natives who figure out how to game the U.S. legal and immigration systems; and the insatiable love Americans have for drugs.

dreamlandDespite the chopped narrative problem, however, Dreamland covers important developments around opioid addiction and its origins. The better sections are arresting; for example, the description of the Xalisco traffickers could be from a business case study, as the Xalisco organizations respond to a number of different factors: supply and demand, a difficult regulatory environment, and unique managerial challenges (the best business case studies are themselves little novels, with the artistry that implies).

In many forgotten cities, most of the wealthy top has left or disappeared, most of the productive middle has moved to a relative handful of cities and suburbs, and many of those who remain are poor. While elite cities accrue service-sector advantages and develop information economies, many other places that existed for agriculture or manufacturing are suffering, and there’s no real way to help them. As a result, “Remaining behind was a thin slice of educated people. They found work in the schools or the hospitals, in some way or other tending to those for whom the factory closings were the beginning of an American nightmare.” “Nightmare” is too strong a word here—one thinks of Behind the Beautiful Forevers—but the challenges seem insurmountable over the short term.

“Nightmares” is not the only linguistic misfire. Some of the writing is cliché: “Two Portsmouths exist today.” You will have heard the “two [geographic area]” terminology. Some sentences are merely banal. Too many say things like, “I learned, too, that envidia—envy, jealousy—was a destructive force in the rancho.” Is there any society for which that is not true? Every society experiences envy, hate, jealousy, striving, signaling, and so on.

In the Two Portsmouths,

One is a town of abandoned buildings at the edge of the Ohio River. The other resides in the memories of thousands in the town’s diaspora who grew up during its better years and return to the actual Portsmouth rarely, if at all.

Heroin remains a statistical phenomenon for me, maybe because of where I live. I’ve never known anyone who has admitted to doing it and I’ve never been offered it. No one I know has died from it. It’s just… out there, somewhere, mostly in the media (which is maybe a reason to read less news, not more). Yet it’s killing tens of thousands of people a year. Dreamland takes this data from statistical abstraction to specific people.

Be ready to notice more after you’ve read Dreamland. For example, the Wall Street Journal just published “For Small-Town Cops, Opioid Scourge Hits Close to Home,” this time about a common drug named fentanyl.

Dreamland’s ending disappoints, maybe because there is no real solution short to the problem. Decriminalization and better treatment options may help but will not cure. The policy recommendations Quinones offers amount to “more of the same.” We may see improvements at the margins but are unlikely to see a solution to the problem of humans liking mind-altering substances.

Here is Isaac’s take on Dreamland. Here is Tyler Cowen on rural America, suggesting we “Support a voluntary temperance movement for zero alcohol, zero drugs.” It’s not for me but I take the reasoning seriously and it’s clear that large numbers of people can’t handle alcohol or drugs, for whatever reasons, and that the pharmacological utopians of the ’60s and ’70s were wrong, or wrong about the experiences of many people.

Links: The post-literacy age, Eco on fascism, literary studies, everything matters, books, and more!

* “Donald Trump, the First President of Our Post-Literate Age.” I’m reminded too of “Twilight of the Books,” from 2007 and now bizarrely, powerfully prescient.

* A charming guide to choosing books.

* “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’


* A conversation with Martin Amis, which is really excellent. See here for another.

* Umberto Eco on fascism, from 1995, an essay that I never thought would be relevant again but here we are.

* There’s a reason authoritarians usually begin by assailing the press.

* “What’s Wrong With Literary Studies? Some scholars think the field has become cynical and paranoid.” Finally! Good news.

* Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election.

“David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center”

David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center” is excellent. I may be a small part of that intellectual center, to the point of writing a presidential endorsement post in October—something I’ve never done before, because the climate has never seemed to merit it. But given the potential for catastrophe, it seemed necessary. Some readers have complained about the increasing amount of political content on The Story’s Story, but given the worldwide political darkness that has been descending it seems necessary to attempt to understand it. I would like to go back to mostly ignoring politics apart from straightforward analysis.

And the problem of false equivalence is real, as Chait makes clear at the link: “official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand.” Yet official centrists should do more than triangulate. They (or we) haven’t done that. They (or we) have also been somewhat asleep over the last six or so years.

I certainly have been and am now attempting to make up for that slumber, in part because I’ve been so wrong about what I thought was politically possible or feasible. Though I’ve read The Myth of the Rational Voter, I didn’t entirely internalize its lessons. Though I’ve read about the extent to which irrationality pervades most human cognition, I didn’t think that we’d become so wildly irrational on a large-scale, public basis. Though I understand that most people know little about history, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which “little” really means “nothing.”

But knowing and understanding things may not matter very much, since we may be living in a post-literate age and I’m writing material that may go largely unread, especially by the people who most need to understand what’s happening.

Life: Jokes and philosophy edition

“[Heidegger’s students] found him funny, but he did not share the joke because his sense of humour was somewhere between peculiar and non-existent. It didn’t matter: his clothes, his rustic Swabian accent and his seriousness only heightened his mystique.”

—Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe, a delightful book I almost didn’t read and a much more pleasurable, informative read than the philosophers it describes.

Links: Political failure, love in the age of smartphones, academic influence, space, and more!

* “What Americans Against Trump Can Learn from the Failures of the Israeli Opposition.”

* “She phubbs me, she phubbs me not: Smartphones could be ruining your love life.” See also me, from 2012, “Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships

* “Maybe America is simply too big,” something I too have been wondering.

* Potential Conflicts Around the Globe for Trump, the Businessman President.

* “Goodbye to Barack Obama’s world: It is the failing of liberal technocrats to think reason governs how people act.”

* Let’s colonize Titan.

* “Oil Industry Anticipates Day of Reckoning: Prospect of ‘peak demand’ prompts debate and long-term planning by global producers.” Good.

* “College Students Want to Kill Foreign Language Requirements.” It would seem that whatever utility it once served has gone away, and the arguments as to why it should remain are weak.

* Why academics are losing relevance in society – and how to stop it.

* “Trump’s lies have a purpose. They are an assault on democracy.

My Secret Life — Anonymous

My Secret Life is a bizarre, disturbing, amazing, fascinating work of Victorian-era pornography. It is anachronistic to label it with a “trigger warning” but it is the rare work that actually deserves the warning; it recounts in great detail the author’s erotic experiences from youth to old age. My Secret Life feels like a book sort of thing that probably wouldn’t get assigned to undergrads today. Still, it is strange and curious enough for me to write about it here (I learned of it via The Voyeur’s Motel, a book that may be considered part of the same genre as My Secret Life). Originally published in or around 1902, it was 11 volumes (!), and the abridged edition I linked to is a single volume that still feels exhausting by its end.

my_secret_lifeIt’s hard to believe that all of My Secret Life is true, and it’s also hard to believe that it is wholly imagined. Today one might call it “creative nonfiction,” which seems to be a phrase that loosely means or connotes truthy, or specious, or “I need to make shit up to make the narrative more compelling.”

The interest in and curiosity about matters generally veiled was great then and remains great now, though today it maybe takes different shapes. There are ceaseless reportorial sections in My Secret Life, and moments when the narrator finds that someone, “One evening being unusually communicative,” explained the matter of “buggery.” That explanation comes from a woman named Camille; the narrator “went there when I wanted a quiet chat and information about sexualities.” That interest appears insatiable, even as its nuances eventually dull the reader’s senses due to repetition.

The need to report and imagine seem relentless. During one extended period with a single woman, the narrator says that “when not thinking of Charlotte, [I] spent my time in writing baudy words and sketching cunts and pricks with pen and ink.” So he is either engaged in the act or considering it in some other way. His work is almost Internet-ready, going even to anonymity.

Some challenges seem eternal, as when the narrator praises a women in this way:

Moreover she was not always plaguing me for money—asking me to pay this, or to lend her to pay that—which is the common habit and trick of harlots from high to low—I felt at sea when Sarah was gone, and recollect that for a month or so I was chaste.

That “chaste” month seems unusual in the narrator’s life, though his whole life seems unusual; that it may be more usual than is usually assumed may be part of the book’s frisson. Still, one hopes that the many vile things the narrator does are not eternal.

My Secret History is an easy book for skipping sections, as the narrator never seems to grow, change, learn, or seriously struggle. As he is at seven, so he is at seventy. But maybe the larger point is that the nature of humanity as a whole may change less than we might like, and that non-technological progress is rarer than we like to think and perhaps barely existent at all.

Links: The warm north pole, resistance done right, the new intellectuals, and the need to read

* “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends.” Which may be the most important story on the planet right now—not the election, not Apple’s latest moves, not whether some celebrity is sunbathing topless. And: “An expert’s view on unusually warm Arctic temperatures.” In the 2030s we will not be able to say we weren’t warned.

* “The End of Identity Liberalism: Our fixation on diversity cost us this election — and more.” Unlikely to be true and simultaneously long overdue.

* Luigi Zingales: “The Right Way to Resist Trump.” Five years ago he wrote “Dodging the Trump Bullet: Americans—and Republicans—are lucky that the Donald has bowed out.” If I saw that earlier piece at all I probably laughed at it. I was wrong. Here is a conversation between Luigi and Tyler.

* “NIH Scientists Identify Potent Antibody That Neutralizes Nearly All HIV Strains.”

* “The New Intellectuals: Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?“, surprisingly good and captures many of my feelings about peer review. It’s amazing to me that more people don’t understand the opportunity cost of grad school and simply start by teaching high school instead, which is far more remunerative than attempting to become a humanities professor (for most people).

* “The President and the bomb.” If you aren’t scared you aren’t paying attention.

* How the thoughts and actions of J L Austin live on. Austen’s book How to Do Things with Words is one of the few good things that came out of grad school.

* “Blame the Banks for All Those Boring Chain Stores Ruining Your City.” Title sounds stupid but the content is not.

* The Need to Read.

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