* “Review: Airmail, an OS X e-mail client that Chris lee doesn’t hate: It integrates everything beautifully and lets you focus your attention.”
* Do only 1,340 authors earn $100,000/year or more? I don’t see a definition of “author.”
* “Tech Companies Fight Back After Years of Being Deluged With Secret FBI Requests,” the fighting back is good if true. Also, if the Attorney General and FBI can’t even understand the law, what hope do normal people have? Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent remains underrated.
* “The Sotomayor and Kagan Dissents in Utah v. Strieff:” Yet another Supreme Court case weakens the Fourth Amendment. Again, Three Felonies A Day is essential reading.
* “British Lose Right to Claim That Americans Are Dumber.” Still, on the other hand, “Americans Regain Their Appetite for Gas Guzzlers,” demonstrating that Americans are also stupid and short-sighted.
* “My four months as a private prison guard,” which should make you even more skeptical of the prison-industrial complex than you already should be.
You don’t need to read The Course of Love: instead read Mating in Captivity or Neil Strauss’s book The Truth or even Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, despite its murder premise, is truer to modern relationships than The Course of Love. You may be tempted by The Course of Love because of de Botton’s charming, hilarious, earlier novels On Love and Kiss & Tell. You’ll recognize callbacks to On Love; the new novel mentions a Chloe who the narrator broke up with, and the love interest in On Love is conveniently named Chloe.
Still, those novels work because they’re funny and this one you will forget because it’s not. There is a lot of tedium in sentences like “At the center of Kisten’s love is a desire to heal the wound of Rabih’s long-buried, largely unmentioned loss.” The characters never stop saying things like, “Everything around here is deeply sensible, rational, worked out, policed—as if there were a timetable all laid out from now till the moment we die.”
Perhaps the point is that we never emerge from our adolescent philosophical stupor, when people complain about sensible, rational, worked out lives—the sorts of things that many modern Syrians would probably like.
The good news is that the last pages work. The bad news is that neurotic humor is missing, and so is a real understanding of male-female dynamics. There are some good inversions of conventional thinking, as when Kirsten seems to think, “she knows, better than most, that there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.” But most of it is closer to the banal sentences quoted previously. One hopes for Flaubert and gets this. Wasn’t it Flaubert who said that every writer should write with a hard-on? Or is that a spurious quotation? Regardless of its genesis, one senses few if any hard-ons inspired this novel, to the novel’s detriment given its subject matter.
Maybe it is not coincidence that in the first sentence of this post two of the better-than suggestions are nonfiction. If you’re militantly opposed to nonfiction, maybe The Course of Love is okay. For anyone not so militantly opposed, you can get similar subject matter that’s actually better written on a sentence by sentence level. Too much of the book feels like an amalgamation of nonfiction trend pieces and books rather than a novel. Here is one sample, chosen at random: “I Can’t Stop Bashing My Husband to Other Moms, and I’m Sorry.” Kirsten has problems bashing her husband to her friends and her husband’s response is basically to shrug. Perhaps the lesson is “Don’t get married” (or expect to grind it out if you do). That may be a valid reading of the novel. Rabih’s improbable affair may be the high point.
Unlike in, say, Michel Houellebecq, the sense of fiction never overwhelms the sense of outside reading in The Course of Love. Much of it feels ripped from time-wasting websites or New York Times trend pieces. I’ve followed de Botton for years and his books vary in quality from the sublime to the wasteful. His nonfiction, except for How to Think More About Sex, is fun and informative. One wishes for more of the good here.
There is too much good stuff for The Course of Love to matter.
A couple readers have asked where I’ve been lately. The short answer is, “Writing for money.” So much writing-for-money that it crowds out other writing. I’m still reading—to me, reading and writing are always intimately connected—but all the excess words and attention have been going into proposals, and occasionally other projects, rather than to posts here. Hence the links posts: I’m still reading, something, and passing on the best stuff.
A friend and I have also been discussing the state of reading books in an age of distraction, and I’ve definitely noticed that a Kindle, Instapaper, and the many long-form sites out there are a killer confluence of technologies. At the margin I read much more long-form nonfiction than I used and fewer books than I used to. To be sure, I still read books and write them, but a book needs to be of higher quality than it once did if it’s to compete with the good, low-cost alternatives.
There are still many books that surpass this threshold. Insides Jokes and Seveneves come to mind. There are numerous others. The best books still reward re-reading in a way few articles do. The best books bring a sensibility and depth to a topic in a way few articles do. The trick is finding those books, which seems as hard as it’s ever been.
* “The Nazi-Era Papers My ‘Mexican’ Mother Kept: She preserved her German ID card, with its ‘J’ stamp, as a warning about the danger in societies driven by nativism and anger.” The most essential link in this list.
* “Is Libertarian Gary Johnson a factor in Clinton-Trump matchup?“, an underrated story.
* “Job-Seeking Ph.D. Holders Look to Life Outside School: New doctorate holders are grappling with dwindling employment prospects within the academy.” This should not surprise readers of this blog. This is me: “Ph.D.s still earn a significant premium over others in the labor market and their overall rate of unemployment remains low, though a growing number are taking jobs that don’t use their education.”
* “University lets rape accuser bring experienced lawyer, won’t let accused bring one,” in what is not likely to be the last of these sorts of bizarre cases.
* New York’s Incredible Subway. Seattle is actively building subways. Denver is also building light rail (with surprising speed). It’s almost like other metros are learning from New York’s successes and Los Angeles’s mistakes.
* “If the atomic bomb had not been used,” one of the most fascinating pieces you’ll read if you’re familiar with the topic; call this a revision to revisionist history.
* “Henry Miller’s fail.” I tried and failed to read Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn when I was a teenager, and once or twice since, but they do nothing for or to me.
* “The Economist Who Just Won a Nobel Prize Thinks Owning a Home Is a Terrible Investment: If everyone you know is telling you to buy a house, you should read Robert Shiller’s work.” The more I learn about the economics and opportunity costs of owning real estate the more puzzled I am by the American cultural fascination with ensuring high levels of employment in the property exchange industry.
* Texas is the new California, but its status won’t last: “The cost of maintaining an equally endless amount of horizontal infrastructure will inevitably outstrip tax revenue over the next generation.” I’m not sure, and the argument is less analytic than it should be, but still.
* How they got their guns,” a chilling yet fascinating piece.
Both books are still excellent, too excellent to really describe in detail, and they’re good in part because they combine so many facets: studies of human character; histories of science; general histories; explorations of where good ideas come from; descriptions of how an individual is only as strong as the network in which he’s embedded.
Rhodes has many excellent sentences of his own and picks out many excellent sentences from others, like this, from Stanislaw Ulam: “I used to say that any two points in Los Angeles were at least an hour’s drive apart.” Something about LA generates pithy derision; I think Joan Didion called it 84 suburbs in search of a city. There are, today, finally some cities, like downtown and Santa Monica. There is finally some underground rail, since the city long ago reach the car apocalypse. The number of cars makes traffic worse is some super-linear sense, just as the number of free neutrons around fissile material changes energetic reactions in a super-linear sense, and L.A.’s traffic nightmare will likely never get better. It’s a city that explains what not to do.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb begins with a strange man whose name has largely been lost to history stepping off a curb (or, in British, “kerb”) in London during the 1930s, when the next World War had become obvious to those wise enough to keep their heads from the sand of appeasement. The chapter is smartly structured: the bit I’ve just given occurs at the very start. Then we get background on the man, Leo Szilard. Then we come back to the moment, when, in Szilard’s quoted words:
As the light changed to green and I crossed the street. . . it . . . suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
As we now know, Szilard, in conjunction with many others, found not just one element but many. Understanding the drama takes 800 pages. But the extraordinary scale of the thing occurs through numerous individuals. Perhaps most surprising is the humanity of the scientists, virtually all of whom were very much aware of the horror of what they were doing. But the enactment of the bomb occurred during a war whose horror still cannot be comprehended. Hence the books that continue to pour forth on it.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun overlap to some extent, as they must: the hydrogen bomb, or “Super,” as it was known, was conceived in earnest around 1942, and the theoretical physicist Edward Teller spent the last years of World War II pursing it, especially as the fission bomb moved away from theoretical physics and towards engineering. He’s a prominent but not overwhelming presence in The Making of the Atomic Bomb but the presence in Dark Sun. But his justifiable hatred of Communism may have led him to realize that fighting against Communism could destroy humanity as a whole. “Better dead than red” is wrong.
Rhodes has moments of poetry or madness: “But from the pre-anthropic darkness where ideas abide in nonexistence until minds imagine them into light, the new bomb emerged already chased with the technocratic euphemism of Art Deco slang: the Super, they named it” goes one sentence (it helps that Rhodes’ scientists are themselves often highly literate). Perhaps the description is overly florid and grandiose, but somehow it fits with the darkness of the project and is probably as good a description of an impossible task: describing where ideas come from and how scientists and artists work, or how human creativity works more generally.
Taken together the books are in many respects epics: they explain the nature and structure of society to the society’s members; they explain how and why things came to be; they are enormous in scope yet psychologically attuned to individuals (especially Teller); they concern the fate of the world itself. They are also histories of the 20th Century, histories of science, “how-tos” for science, and much more. The genre-bending is part of what makes them great.