Briefly noted: The Precipice, Lost and Wanted, Hidden Valley Road

* The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: A very good book about what it claims to be about, namely, whether we’re going to escape the present moment’s extinction possibilities (nuclear weapons, pandemics, and climate change are all possible extinction vectors—the book was published before COVID) and move into a future where energy is ubiquitous and clean, consciousness is understood and readily emulated, and humans or post-human consciousnesses can live in space. We seem to be on the verge of technologies that will dramatically increase human robustness, if we can avoid screwing things up in the next couple decades. How often do you read books that really cover the long view?

Ord says, “safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.” Yet I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say as much—can you? Halfway through, Ord reiterates: “We need a public conversation about the longterm future of humanity: the breathtaking scale of what we can achieve, and the risks that threaten all of this, all of us.” In some ways, one would think coronavirus might inspire this conversation, but it seemingly hasn’t.

The book is printed on strangely crappy paper, for a work about eternity.

* Lost and Wanted: A Novel, by Nell Freudenberger. Great premise but the opening pages had too much standard politically correct stuff, which makes it boring. Some good essays have been written about it, but they omit what I just foregrounded. Maybe I should have persevered. The boring standard politically correct stuff feels like reading a nineteenth century novel and getting slammed with a bunch of Catholics-vs-protestants, or why religion is essential for a healthy society: a bunch of irrelevant, extraneous, and distracting material. The 200 or so novels from the nineteenth that normal people might still read today mostly eschew this kind of thing.

* Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker: The story of the Galvin family; parents Don and Mimi had 12 kids between 1945 and 1965 on what was an essentially middle-class salary. If everything had gone perfectly, maybe they could have pulled that feat off, but many things did not: “Six of the Galvin boys took ill at a time when so little was understood about schizophrenia.” Not only was little understood, but Freudians still had some stature within psychiatry, and, insanely, people denying the biological aspects of mental illness held many positions of power. In some ways we get a story of the history of the bent mind: “In the beginning—before anyone turned the study of mental illness into a science and called it psychiatry—being insane was a sickness of the soul, a perversion worthy of prison or banishment or exorcism. Judaism and Christianity interpreted the soul as something distinct from the body—an essence of one’s self that could be spoken to by the Lord, or possessed by the devil.”

Things have improved in many ways, but we’re still closer to “a sickness of the soul” than many of us would like to be. A few years ago, a psychiatrist could legitimately ask, “Does Psychiatry Need Science?” Or, to take another review, “Can psychiatry be a science?” We’re still a bit wobbly on the answers. Kind of like we’re a bit wobbly on why, deeply, Don and Mimi have so many kids; Catholicism is one answer, but 12? Don and Mimi needed access to contraception: many of their boys would still have developed schizophrenia, obviously, but the amount of attention available had to have been stretched, particularly because Don and Mimi couldn’t readily draw on family or community resources due to distance and fear. Denial played a role, too: “Nothing may have been more important to Mimi than a flawless Thanksgiving.” A flawless Thanksgiving stems from real, positive family relationships. Take those away and Thanksgiving will always be the stuff of New Yorker short stories.

The book’s second half is more compelling than its first, and, like a lot of stories, part of it is about accepting what we can change and what we can’t: “From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable.” Mimi’s drive for a flawless Thanksgiving is one such attempt to build the bubble. The reality of their situation, however, is much stronger than the bubble fantasy.

The big downside to Hidden Valley Road: it’s an incredible story, but you won’t learn much; I started by being against schizophrenia, as well as the various other very bad things that occur, and I came out against them too. I’m curious about the history of developing alternate drugs to treat schizophrenia, and the extent to which different mental disorders bleed into one another: we get some information about this, but that’s where my attention was drawn.

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America — Conor Dougherty

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America is up there with The Rent Is Too Damn High, where it foregrounds what should be if not the top, then one of the top policy issues in the country. “Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build: When California’s housing crisis slammed into a wealthy suburb, one public servant became a convert to a radically simple doctrine” is an excerpt that gives much of the book’s flavor. While I personally like books and papers that use abstract reasoning to make their points, most people don’t, and need stories to understand the world: “Build Build Build” uses Steve Falk’s story to explain why even liberty-shy Californians are sometimes coming around to letting the state change a bit. Most importantly, a baby boomer like him began to see that his own kids’s lives were being constricted by the odious zoning monster that almost all municipalities in California have fed:

Mr. Falk began his career on the local control side of that debate. But somewhere along the Deer Hill odyssey, he started to sympathize with his insurrectionist opponents. His son lived in San Francisco and paid a fortune to live with a pile of roommates. His daughter was a dancer in New York, where the housing crunch was just as bad. It was hard to watch his kids struggle with rent and not start to think that maybe Ms. Trauss had a point.

New York and San Francisco are strangling their young, and even their middle-aged, in ways that many local politicians aren’t adequately grappling with. Golden Gates expertly surfaces ideas about what is or should be “normal” and whether those things should be normal:

Patterned on the American mind, in ways we rarely stop to notice, are layers of zoning and land-use rules that say what can be built where. They are so central to how American cities look and operate that they have become a kind of geographic DNA that forms our opinion of what seems proper and right.

But what is perceived as normal—what is “patterned”—may not be “proper and right,” even if what’s regarded as “proper and right” gets unfairly mapped to normal. The “layers” of zoning and other rules occur at the neighborhood level, city level, sometimes the county level, and sometimes the state level: each veto point chokes off potential projects and creates a kind of suffocating conformity that has drained cities’s vitality, without many people noticing. Somehow, preventing anyone from doing much of anything almost anywhere is said to increase vitality: instead, we get suffocating rents, millennials who are now themselves reaching into middle age and yet often feel they can’t afford to have kids, because who’s going to pay the rent, let alone the health insurance and the student loans?

We need more freedom and greater liberalization—or at least that’s the framing that I’d choose, using the thinking behind George Lakoff’s work on the language of political ideas. Oddly, though, the most reactionary groups in local housing fights tend to frame themselves as preserving freedom—the freedom from having other people make any changes in their neighborhoods. The result, as Doherty writes, is that “In effect, we shattered urban regions into a constellation of smallish cities and reactionary single-family house neighborhoods whose influence over local land use decisions give them an astounding amount of control over how much shelter we build, where, and at what cost.” The problem goes back decades—”City planners started documenting the urban housing shortage in the 1970s, and in the decades since economists have shown that many of the country’s highest-income regions have become so expensive that they have all but gated out middle-class jobs and people”—but problems that compound enough over time become enormous and menacing.

Housing can’t be both a good investment and an affordable place to live. Preferring one goal intrinsically compromises the other. For the last five decades, we’ve tried to make housing an investment that yields above-market returns: consequently, it’s now incredibly expensive in many productive cities. Perhaps the biggest way we may see changes in this dynamic is through changes in the composition of renters versus owners. Invitation Homes is now one of the largest landlords in the country, and it specializes in buying single-family houses (or “oneplexes”) and renting them out. That’s it. The company has realized that the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon is also a business opportunity. Airbnb exists in part because most cities forbid hoteliers from building sufficient hotel capacity—so renting private housing units is an arbitrage on those rules. Canvas Co-Living is a startup that is working to allow “facilitated shared homes.”

Golden Gates’s best story may be that of Sonja Truss, a woman who was tired of the Bay Area’s relentless housing cost increases—so she decided to do something about it:

But for a young adult with no obvious signs of intoxication to show up at a midday city meeting to say she was just generally in favor of housing because San Francisco didn’t have enough of it? That made no sense. Nobody attended eight-hour city meetings if they didn’t have to, and while the planning commission was a place of arguments and strange behavior, it was also a place where people at least knew where each other’s lanes were.

She decided to scramble the lanes, by arguing that the problem isn’t too much housing but too little. She finds herself in weird ideological waters, because many people who proclaim their progressive bonafides are more conservative, in many ways, than the current occupant of the White House. Labeling one’s opponents is a big deal in Bay Area politics: “Only in San Francisco would a gay man who opposed the death penalty and marched in the local BDSM festival in leather straps have to argue he was truly of the left.” There are lots of racial politics involved too: many of the kinds of people who want to proclaim themselves to be opposed to racism nonetheless support housing and development policies that are racist in practice and effect.

Another chapter discusses Factory_OS, a company that’s trying to do modular building. Housing is expensive for many reasons, with zoning at the top of the list—but the actual cost of construction is high, and, in many high-cost metros, the zoning drives up the cost of construction. Why? As zoning artificially restricts housing construction, the construction workers who build new housing have to pay more for existing housing, which means that they have to be paid more by anyone trying to build housing. One gets a kind of perverse ratchet that, again, ends with absurdities like San Francisco. Modular housing, like cross-laminated timber, promises to reduce the cost of building. Unfortunately, building a housing factory is expensive up front, and the returns are spread across many years—leaving a wide space for bankruptcy. Previous efforts at modular housing have tended to fail when the market turns and the maker goes out of business. Dougherty points out that a recession could doom Factory_OS and its competitors. As of this writing, we’re already likely in the worst recession since 2008, and that was the worst since the Great Depression. What happens with the COVID Recession remains to be seen (the recession is made worse by many laid-off people being stuck with expensive leases and mortgages, due to decades of failure to build enough housing). One of the best ways to be successful in business is to start while a rising economy naturally lifts your company. Many business geniuses are really people with lucky timing—which isn’t to knock them: I’d love to have lucky timing too. As of July 23 2020, it appears that Google has promised to invest more money in Factory_OS, so the company is still presumably alive. But it has an ominously small number of mentions in the media over the last year.

One major thing might break the zoning logjam: by now, intellectuals and investors know the single-family zoning racket and know that single-family zoning is designed to enrich property owners. It’s not hard to figure out how to profit from above-market returns, as Invitation Homes has: buy the asset. But as investment funds buy single-family properties, the composition of renters versus owners will change, and more renters will be part of the voting pool. If renters can figure out how supply and demand work—a big “if,” given anti-market bias—they’ll vote to expand the supply of housing. So far, we’ve not seen much of this dynamic, but, as the costs of housing continue to increase, we might see more of it as people go looking for answers. Voters can ineffectively blame landlords and “greedy” developers, or they can effectively look for solutions. Golden Gates is part of the solutions firmament, if enough people read it and change their behavior based on new knowledge. That’s a big “if,” however.

To me, it remains strange and interesting that many people who are superficially interested in lowering housing costs won’t believe that the obvious solution, known for centuries—since the time of Adam Smith—to high prices is greater supply. Any solution that is not “more supply” will entail shortages. We can’t legislate away supply and demand. Yet a common urban trope involves blaming the people attempting to respond to price signals with more product for being “greedy.” The ineffectiveness of this response is obvious, but until recently there’s been no organized political response to the problem. Dougherty is chronicling that response—and telling the stories of the people responding.

A review in an interesting venue. There should be bipartisan support for zoning reform.

Briefly noted: Inadvertent, Normal People, and Un-wifeable

* Inadvertent (Why I Write), by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Lots of subtle ideas in this one, and those ideas have been stated before, but they’re stated well here: “Literature is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out. For the answer to the question —that I write because I am going to die – to have the intended effect, for it to strike one as truth, a space must first be created in which it can be said. That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.” I’m not sure about the run-on in the first sentence, but the idea that literature not being about “truths” (plural), but about being “the space where truths play out” seems accurate: once you get away from the hard truths of math and physics, and get into the squishy contingent truths of jostling human societies, there isn’t “a” truth—there are a bunch of them, many rivalrous with one another, and part of art is the wrangling of those truths.

Finnegans Wake and Mallarmé are mentioned on one page (63), Game of Thrones (64) the next. Why does he keep watching? For emotional ideas, yes, but, also, “What we seek in art is meaning.” Are we seeking that in social media, too? Is Twitter art? Why or why not? The problem with talking about art is that it generates infinitely more talk about art. Or maybe that’s a solution. This book has lots of truths, or, if they’re not truths, idea-generating statements.

* Normal People, by Sally Rooney: It’s a much better book than the first one, Conversations with Friends

There’s much about social power in the novel—”If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it,” but most of that social power goes unused. If the protagonists could care less about what other people, who they don’t care about, think of them, they’d get on quite well, but there’d also not be a novel. The bits observing adolescence are sharp, like “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away.” “Real life” gets mentioned four times. “Weird” gets used 32 times: there’s nothing worse in modern upwardly mobile life than being “weird,” it seems. I found myself drifting back to thoughts of Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One, where he speculates that part of the reason successful startup founders often are on or seem to be on the autism spectrum is because that enables them to ignore what other people think and pursue novel ideas other people make fun of. Learning to ignore other people might be a very useful skill in a massive, globally connected world where one can come into contacted with ignorant strangers constantly—including the ignorant strangers at school.

Normal People‘s climax—this is not giving anything substantial away—involves Connell getting into an MFA program, no doubt expensive, in New York. It’s like watching the student loan monster, holding a knife, creep up on the protagonist in a Stephen King: Connell is going to end up being 30, with a bunch of degrees but no assets or marketable skills, like many thousands of other “bright” people of his age and class. Somehow, I think this climax is supposed to be a triumph, rather than a tragedy. No one seems to understand that accumulating pricey degrees in one’s 20s is not necessarily a thing to aspire to. It was, maybe, 30 or 40 years ago, but the world has changed.

I read another novel, The Glass House, in which student loans are among the villains, and the student loans that plague so many people of my generation mirror the ponzi scheme propelling and perpetrated by Jonathan Alkaitis. That’s a more realistic depiction of the academic system. In The Glass House, Alkaitis’s job is fraud and Vincent’s job is sex work, although being a trophy wife is never quite described as such. They’re both good novels, but Normal People feels like a fairy tale—not because of love’s triumph, or maybe adulthood’s triumph but because of institutional arrangements, while The Glass House feels grittily real; student loans and attitudes towards schools are the key differentiators.

At the end of Normal People, Marianne is brushing the knots from her hair, but really she’s trying to brush the knots out of her life—which is probably impossible, but worth attempting.

* Un-wifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Being at the edges of the celebrity economy sounds really unpleasant—even being in the center doesn’t sound real pleasant. Lots of celebrities have said and written as much, but somehow it sinks in more here, when we’re seeing the sort of person who writes the pointlessly mean celebrity takedowns. The persons doing the takedowns have something poisonous in their own lives and souls, naturally, and Un-wifeable is, among other things, a chronicle of the poison. I have my problems, but next to Stadtmiller’s stories they seem minor.

Some of the lessons are obvious, like “getting drunk is also often bad, particularly around strangers who don’t wish you well.” And not only for Stadtmiller: “How many times have I said cruel things—including to my ex-husband—that I may not even remember because I was in a rage blackout? I need to turn everything around. I cannot continue this cycle of victimization.” One admirable part of this memoir is that Stadtmiller doesn’t primarily cast herself as a victim, which she could have; the temptation was probably there, but she resisted.

New York has no glamor in Un-wifeable, unless perhaps you recognize the various celebrities named. Stadtmiller finishes her decade or so in the city with tons of credit card debt and no family, although she doesn’t seem to want the former and does seem to want the latter. I don’t understand how Stadtmiller drinks as much as she does and writes, though, to be fair I don’t understand how Fitzgerald or Hemingway did either. Drinking and writing are incompatible for me.

A lot of Stadtmiller’s stories are about the downsides of no boundaries. People, and especially children, need boundaries and connections. Stadtmiller lacks the former and that impedes the latter. Her parents are unconventional, to the point that they’ve “studied at the Esalen Institute, birthplace of the human potential movement,” like characters in a Houellebecq novel. Did you read “A Bellow From France” carefully? Have you read Houellebecq? Stadtmiller is a female Houellebecq character, except that instead of giving up and shrugging, she still cares and is struggling against herself (“The column affords me the perfect way to superficially seek love while never exploring the more difficult questions about what true love for oneself and others really takes.”) As a culture, I don’t think we want to explore “the more difficult questions.” I don’t, mostly.

One takeaway might be, “Don’t move to New York if marriage and family are important to you.” Obviously people in New York get married and have families, but the city is not geared for that, and Stadtmiller is pushing against the hardest gear to get herself uphill. Ideally one chooses to do a hard thing the easiest one way can, rather than attempting to do a hard thing made harder by environment.

Bringing Up Bébé – Pamela Druckerman

This is really a book about how to do things, and about how the way we do things says things about who we are. Fiction is often about culture and so is Bringing Up Bébé. Cross-cultural comparisons are (still) underrated and we should do more of them; you can think of Michel Houellebecq’s work as being about the dark side of France and Druckerman’s as being about the light side of France (noting that she’s a transplanted American). Bringing Up Bébé is a parenting book, yes, but also a living book—that is, how to live. I bought it, let it sit around for a while, and only started it when I couldn’t find anything else to read, only to be delighted, and surprised. Let me quote from a section of the book; each new paragraph is a separate section, but put them together and one can see the differences between American-style families and French-style families:

French experts and parents believe that hearing “no” rescues children from the tyranny of their own desires.

As with teaching kids to sleep, French experts view learning to cope with “no” as a crucial step in a child’s evolution. It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.

French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.

Walter Mischel says that capitulating to kids starts a dangerous cycle: “If kids have the experience that when they’re told to wait, that if they scream, Mommy will come and the wait will be over, they will very quickly learn not to wait. Non-waiting and screaming and carrying on and whining are being rewarded.”

“You must teach your child frustration” is a French parenting maxim.

As with sleep, we tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.

Since the ’60s, American parents seem to have become less inclined to say no and let kids live with some frustration, and yet we need some frustration and difficulty in order to become whole people. I’m sure many teachers and professors are reading the quotes above and connecting them to their own classroom experiences. The tie into Jean Twenge’s book iGen and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind is almost too obvious to state; Haidt and Twenge’s books concern what smartphones are doing to the state of education, educational discourse, and educational institutions, and, while they cover smartphones and social media, those two technologies aren’t occurring in isolation. Excessive permissiveness appears to create neuroticism, unhappiness, and fragility, and excessive permissiveness seems to start for American parents somewhere between a few weeks and a few months after birth—and it never ends. But most of us don’t recognize it in the absence of an outside observer, the same way we often don’t recognize our psychological challenges in the absence of an outside observer.

In Druckerman’s rendition, French parents are good at establishing boundaries, saying “no” and, with babies, implementing “the pause”—that is, not rushing to to the baby’s aid every time the baby makes some small noise or sound. She writes about how the way many children are “stout,” to use the French euphemism for “fat,” comes from not having established mealtimes but instead of having continuous snacking, in part because parents won’t say “No, you need to wait” to their kids.

Failing to create reasonable boundaries from an early age leads to the failure to develop emotional resilience. “Reasonable” is an important word: it is possible to be strict or to let kids struggle too much, just as it’s possible to do the opposite, and the right mix will likely depend on the kid or the situations.

French parenting culture spills into schools:

When Benoît took a temporary posting at Princeton, he was surprised when students accused him of being a harsh grader. “I learned that you had to say some positive things about even the worst essays,” he recalls. In one incident, he had to justify giving a student a D. Conversely, I hear that an American who taught at a French high school got complaints from parents when she gave grades of 18:20 and 20:20. The parents assumed that the class was too easy and that the grades were “fake.”

The whines I got from students also make sense: in many U.S. schools, there’s not as strong a culture of excellent as there is a culture of “gold stars for everyone.” I understand the latter desire, having felt it myself in many circumstances, but it’s also telling how important a culture of excellence is once the school train tracks end and the less-mapped wilderness of the “real world” (a phrase that is misused at times) begins.

I routinely get feedback that class is too hard, likely because most classes and professors have no incentive to fight grade inflation, and the easiest way to get along is for them to pretend to learn and us to pretend to teach. Real life, however, is rarely an “everybody gets an A” experience, and almost no one treats it that way: most people who eat bad food at a bad restaurant complain about it; most people whose doctor misses a diagnosis complain about the miss (and want excellence, not just kindness); most people prefer the best consumer tech products, like MacBook Airs or Dell XPS laptops, not the “good try” ones. Excellence itself is a key aspect of the real world but is often underemphasized in the current American education system (again, it is possible to over-emphasize it as well).

In my own work as a grant writing consultant, “good job” never occurs if the job is not good, and “you suck” sometimes occurs even if the job is good. Clients demand superior products and most people can’t write effectively, so they can’t do what I do. I’m keen to impart non-commodity skills that will help differentiate students from the untrained and poorly educated masses, but this demands a level of effort and precision beyond what most American schools seem to expect.

Having read Bringing Up Bébé, I’m surprised it’s not become a common read among professors and high school teachers—I think because it’s pitched as more of a parenting book and a popular “two different cultures” book. But it’s much subtler and more sociological than I would have thought, so perhaps I bought into its marketing too. There is also much to be said for how to teach and think about teaching in this book. The French are arguably too strict and too mean to students. Americans are probably not strict enough, not demanding enough, and don’t set adequate standards. The optimal place is likely somewhere between the extremes.

Druckerman is also funny: “I realize how much I’ve changed when, on the metro one morning, I instinctively back away from the man sitting next to the only empty seat, because I have the impression that he’s deranged. On reflection, I realize my only evidence for this is that he’s wearing shorts.” Could shorts not be an indication of derangement? And Druckerman cops to her own neuroticisms, which a whole industry of parenting guides exists to profit from:

What makes “Is It Safe?” so compulsive is that it creates new anxieties (Is it safe to make photocopies? Is it safe to swallow semen?) but then refuses to allay them with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, expert respondents disagree with one another and equivocate.

Bébé is a useful contrast from the France depicted in Houellebecq novels. Same country, very different vantages. In Druckerman’s France, the early childhood education system works fairly well, not having to have a car is pleasant, food isn’t a battle, and pleasant eroticism seems to fuel most adults’s lives—including parents’s. “Pleasant” is used twice deliberately. In Houellebecq’s France, empty nihilism reigns, most people are isolated by their attachment to machines, and and most actions are or feel futile.

So who’s right? Maybe both writers. But Druckerman may also point to some reasons why France, despite pursuing many bad economic policies at the country level, is still impressively functional and in many ways a good place to live. The country’s education system is functioning well and so is its transit systems—for example, Paris’s Metro is being massively expanded, at a time when the U.S. is choking on traffic and struggling with absurdly high subway costs that prevent us from building out alternatives. New York’s last main trunk subway line was completed before World War II. Small and useful extensions have been completed since, but there is no substitute for opening a dozen or more new stations and 10+ miles at a time. Improved subway access reduces the need for high-cost cars and enables people to live better lives—something France is doing but the U.S. seems unable to achieve. AAA estimates the average total cost of an American car to be $9,282. If French people can cut that to say $3,000 (taxes included) for subways, the French may be able to do a lot more with less.

France’s bad macro policies and overly rigid labor market may be offset by good childcare and transit policies; Bébé could help explain why that is. Druckerman says, “Catering to picky kids is a lot of work” (“cater” appears four times in Bébé). If the French don’t do that, Americans may be spending a lot of hours at work, rather than leisure, that the French aren’t spending—therefore raising the total quality of French life. Mismeasurement is everywhere, and, while I don’t want to praise France too much on the basis of a single work, I can see aspects of French culture that make sense and aspects of American culture that, framed correctly, don’t.

Conversations with Friends — Sally Rooney

You may have been fooled by the New Yorker profile of Sally Rooney, as I was, but don’t be: Conversations with Friends is boring—there’s nothing horribly wrong with it but little right with it either. There is some juvenile BS on almost every page; if you haven’t read the books listed here quit this review now and go pick up some of. It’s hard to find representative sentences in Conversations because they’re all representative, and flat: “He never usually trailed off his sentences this way. He started to feel agitated. I said again I didn’t mean to be distant with him. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say and I was afraid of what it might have been.” We get pages and pages like this. Also: “never usually?” Or, “I felt his body then, his heat and complex weight.” Complex weight? As opposed to simple weight?

The book is about a girl’s affair with a married man, and she kinda sorta tries polyamory lite, but without thinking much about it or having any social or community structure for it. Conversations a “kinda sorta” sort of book, which is why it’s so unsatisfying. The sentences are short and it’s easy to skip sentences, paragraphs, pages, without losing anything. Still, Conversations gives hope to unpublished writers, because if it can get published and pushed, you might be able to too.

I want the protagonist to get a job on a fishing boat, or building rockets for SpaceX, or working in an emergency room, or doing anything, anywhere, apart from interning for literary agents and spending too much time listening to professors or living in libraries. There is a world beyond university humanities departments, thankfully, but it is opaque to Frances and her friends. Conversations are fine, but conversations among people with no goals, no dreams, and no purpose lead one to wonder why they aren’t short stories.

Not every book needs to challenge and this one doesn’t. It’s the literary equivalent of an anodyne meal at a “new American” restaurant that does the same thing thousands of similar establishments do. It won’t offend or wow anyone. If this is the “millennial novel,” we have nothing to fear but our own emptiness, and the social media we use to try and stuff the emptiness into some shape. But you could do worse; I read to the end but am also trying not to do the classic bad critic move of generalizing from specific individuals to much larger groups. If I were to do that, I would draw much different sociological or demographic conclusions than have others I’ve read. So much art really is read as simply confirming our priors.

Briefly noted: The Three Languages of Politics, Maigret at Picratt’s, The Ditch

* The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides (Arnold Kling): Like Kling I “would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation.” But I don’t expect to see it in the near future, though I am hopeful for the medium to far future. And I’d also ask the author about him seeing “more mutual respect and reasoned deliberation” in political discourse—as compared to what? Or when? Deliberation seems better than it was in, say, 1850 – 1865, and problems today, though severe, still seem considerably less severe than they were in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did not go for “less tribal animosity” throughout the Cold War, although the Soviet nemesis may have reduced some local tribal animosity.

Still, Kling writes that “This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose.” Which is most of the time; identifying such things is good and I approve, but I also suspect not very many people who really need this book will read it, and that politics is to most people and voters a team sport first, and an information problem or network second, or twentieth.

Something about politics may also bring out the worst in many of us: I’ve also noticed an uptick in weak comments about politically-related writing on this blog—those comments are much more frequent than in writing about books or other subjects. When I delete them, the authors sometime reappear for more invective (which is also deleted). We need tribal identities over, under, or beyond political identities; I read somewhere that political matters are not enough to base an identity on, which seems true and underrated. Ross Douthat has also said that, if you don’t like the religious right, you’re really not going to like the non-religious right, and so far that seems surprisingly correct to me.

* The Ditch (Herman Koch); can’t figure out what’s special about this writer, but maybe translation is the issue—or Europhilia among reviewers. I’m looking for representative, evocative sentences and finding none. Koch gets lots of notice but I’m not seeing what the reviewers seem to see. Maybe you know?

* Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris) is strangely boring, and no man would wish it to be longer than it is. Culminates in Academy Awards minutia, somehow. Reminiscent in some ways of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. But if you have a keen interest in movies and the movie business of the 1960s, this is your book.

* The Ideas That Made America (Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ) sounds promising, but don’t be fooled: you don’t get many of them, and you get too much of the obvious, like “The movement of ideas rarely respects national borders.” No shit? Why would anyone (outside of academia) think otherwise? To be fair, she does later say that intellectual exchanges between the U.S. north and south were rare, but then why not just say that in one sentence, instead of many more than it requires? There is some detail about how slavery was justified in the south, but to call that thinking “bare rationalization” is an understatement.

* Maigret at Picratt’s is another of the Maigret novels, though “novella” is probably more accurate, and one that often feels strangely contemporary. Being a party animal and aging are not very compatible, which is obvious and yet not stated as such often. Today, continual references to police bicycles stand out. Of one early murder victim we find, “Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.” People differ; Maigret wishes to know all. The French look to Americans for guidance (“Apparently it’s what they do in America in the burlesques”), just as the Americans look back across the Atlantic for the same. “You know how it is” occurs in dialogue at least once, and “I understand” several times. Do we all seek understanding? If so, why is it so hard to find?

Coders — Clive Thompson

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World is promising, but many sections are too wrapped up in media business rituals for it to be great. That said, if you’ve not read about the mindsets that cognitively demanding enterprises demand, the book provides a good introduction to them. Despite that, it likely underemphasizes and underplays the extreme meritocracy of the tech world, where code works—or doesn’t, and products work—or don’t. The large amount of signaling cruft that has accumulated in many other worlds is (mostly) absent. Coders are arguably the end result of a centuries-long process away from being who you are because of you or your family’s place in the social order and towards being who you are because of what you can do. Maybe that will change over time, but it hasn’t yet, and tech is attractive to outsiders in general because you can’t fake your way in, and, if you do, you’ll likely be found out relatively quickly.

Thompson disagrees, it seems. He writes, “the software industry has long cherished its self-image of a pure meritocracy.” I don’t think many people think a “pure” meritocracy is possible, so this notion has a whiff of the strawman about it because of the word “pure.” A better question might be, is the software business meritocratic compared to many other industries? Sure seems like it, given the way the Internet opens the field to talented but uncredentialed outsiders. Thompson goes on to assert it’s not true, without providing real evidence (though he has some typical media stories). For example, the chapter “10x, rock stars, and the myth of meritocracy” has lots of stories but very little, if any, data, and none that supports the central point. Chapter 7 is worse.

Despite that, there are useful threads; for example, people complained vociferously about Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced. But “the day after News Feed emerged, Sanghvi and the team found that people were spending twice as much time on Facebook as before.” Revealed preferences, in other words: we could call our era the “revealed preferences” era, because so much of our online lives shows things that we don’t want to say. The aggregate of our desires is often quite different from what we say we want. Still, it might be inhumane to live in a world where shading the truth is a lot harder, and we’re in a world where online denunciations are becoming more common yet our cultural immune system hasn’t adjusted to them yet.

After I read Coders, I read “Robert A. Caro on the Means and Ends of Power,” and it makes me think: Who is going to be the Caro of the coding generation? The writer who is so deep into the technical mind, the mind that has shaped the digital tools almost all of use, that he says it all? Thompson has the potential to get there, but Coders doesn’t arrange the material right. He gets that, to Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook as a company “was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” as she says. That’s a powerful force and, as someone who’s worked in and around government and universities for years, I see the appeal of being in a startup where urgency is everywhere. But Thompson also writes things like, “Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information.” Did it? Or was it just an experiment? Maybe an experiment in self-presentation? arguably those two questions are variants on “transmission of information,” but, equally arguably, “transmission of information” is too abstract for what Facebook was, or is. That’s the sort of thing someone like Caro is likely to get right, while many others are likely to get it wrong.

But, despite that, I think this is correct, or, if not correct, interesting:

Back during the Revolutionary America of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law. The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course.

I wonder if “writer” has ever been the key profession, or if it’s always been the profession of the carpers instead of the doers. Nonetheless, the theme of coding’s rise reappears elsewhere: “Sure, politics, law, and business are powerful, but if you want to really remold the contours of society? Write code.” That, at least, his view of the ’90s and the Internet.

For one coder,

It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long.

Sounds like many writers on writing, who also find that the top-of-mind project colonizes their minds—if they’re to do it at the highest levels. Both fields are also prone to generating the question, “Where do good ideas come from?”, which has no answer at this stage of technological and human knowledge.

Yet solving puzzles also means managing frustration, because another section declares it writing it well to need “a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.” Why do some people find some things, like running or coding, as fun, while many if not most others hate them? We are again running into unanswerable psychological questions with large-scale social implications. Yet the work also engenders “a sense of clarity, of proof that his work actually was valid.”

You can no doubt sense my ambivalence about Coders. Thompson needs to give up his media rituals and relentless political correctness henpecking; they’re likely to mark Coders as being too much of its time, rather than for all time. There is a classic in this book, but the book is too of its media moment to be the classic. And that’s a pity, to see someone with a lot of material who misuses the material.

The Seventh Function of Language — Laurent Binet

The Seventh Function of Language is wildly funny, at least for the specialist group of humanities academics and those steeped in humanities academic nonsense of the last 30 – 40 years. For everyone else, it may be like reading a prolonged in-joke. Virtually every field has its jokes that require particular background to get (I’ve heard many doctors tell stories whose punchline is something like, “And then the PCDH level hit 50, followed by an ADL of 200!” Laughter all around, except for me). In the novel, Roland Barthes doesn’t die from a typical car crash in 1980; instead, he is murdered. But by who, and why?

A hardboiled French detective (or “Superintendent,” which is France’s equivalent) must team up with a humanities lecturer to find out, because in the world of The Seventh Function it’s apparent that a link exists between Barthes’s work and his murder. They don’t exactly have a Holmes and Watson relationship, as neither Bayard (the superintendent) or Herzog (the lecturer) make brilliant leaps of deduction; rather, both complement each other, each alternating between bumbling and brilliance. Readers of The Name of the Rose will recognize both the detective/side-kick motif as well as the way a murder is linked to the intellectual work being done by the deceased. In most crime fiction—as, apparently, in most crime—the motives are small and often paltry, if not outright pathetic: theft, revenge, jealousy, sex. “Money and/or sex” pretty much summarizes why people kill (and perhaps why many people live). That sets up the novel’s idea, in which someone is killed for an idea.

The novel’s central, unstated joke is that, in the real world, no one would bother killing over literary theory because literary theory is so wildly unimportant (“Bayard gets the gist: Roland Barthes’s language is gibberish. But in that case why waste your time reading him?”). At Barthes’s funeral, Bayard thinks:

To get anywhere in this investigation, he knows that he has to understand what he’s searching for. What did Barthes possess of such value that someone not only stole it from him but they wanted to kill him for it too?

The real world answer is “nothing.” He, like other French intellectuals, has nothing worth killing over. And if you have nothing conceivably worth killing over, are your ideas of any value? The answer could plausibly be “yes,” but in the case of Barthes and others it is still “no.” And the money question structures a lot of relations: Bayard thinks of Foucault, “Does this guy earn more than he does?”

Semiotics permeates:

Many is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere: in the color of his wife’s coat, in the stripe on the door of his car, in the eating habits of the people next door, in France’s monthly unemployment figures, in the banana-like taste of Beaujolais nouveau (for it always tastes either like banana or, less often, raspberry. Why? No one knows, but there must be an explanation, and it is semiological.)…

There are also various amusing authorial intrusions and one could say the usual things about them. The downside of The Seventh Function is that its underlying thrust is similar to the numerous other academic novels out there; if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read them all. The upsides are considerable, however, among them the comedy of allusion and the gap between immediate, venal human behavior and the olympian ideas enclosed in books produced by often-silly humans. If the idea stated in the book and the author’s behavior don’t match, what lesson should we take from that mismatch?

Trick Mirror — Jia Tolentino

I read one of the essays in a magazine, but the book as a whole is dubious. Take the introduction: she writes that she wrote the book “between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018” which was, she says, “a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things got worse.” “As bad as we could possibly imagine?” That’s a real deficit of imagination, then. As bad as things were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As during the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviet Union almost took as preparation for nuclear war? As bad as even the Great Recession in 2009? Has Tolentino and “many of us” read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment now?

Tolentino writes that one of her essays is “about ‘optimization,’ and the rise of athleisure as late-capitalist fetishwaear.” First, athleisure is not, to my knowledge, associated at all with fetish sexual practices (I could be wrong on that but didn’t see any citations or experiences to the contrary in the essay). Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “late capitalism” intelligently defined, or that I’ve ever read a sentence that was improved by including the phrase. How do we know we’re in late capitalism? Is it possible we’re experiencing early capitalism? She later writes that our world is “utterly consumed by capitalism.” What’s that mean? What’s the alternative? We’ve seen examples of the state directing all or almost all economic activity (the Soviet Union, Venezuela), and the result is not good.

It’s also neither clear nor evident that “capitalism” is the best way to analyze many of the Internet platforms. To the extent capitalism involves monetary exchange, I don’t pay Twitter and Twitter doesn’t pay me; same with Facebook or Google. If I’m a business, advertising, I might. And if you don’t like the social media advertising business models, you can also host your own blog. That almost no one does, tells us something, but it’s something Tolentino doesn’t want to get to.

There are assertions like “Mass media always determines the shape of politics and culture.” Really? “Mass media?” Why not technology? Or why don’t politics and culture shape mass media? What way does the causal arrow run?

A while ago, “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” appeared:

As Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

You can apply a lot of “Nice for What’s?” analysis to Trick Mirror, but with “the Internet” (exalted and degraded, parent and child, god and satan) standing in for men. Trick Mirror is a very well done version of the Brooklyn hipster writer worldview. Whether that worldview is correct, I will leave to readers.

It’s always been hard to make it in the arts. In some ways, the Internet makes it harder (the supply of writing, video, and photo is way up); in some ways, it makes it easier (it’s possible to become visible in a way that wasn’t in 1980). Today, writing is an incredible secondary skill but a harder primary skill: I see that in Seliger + Associates, where the blog is now a primary marketing mechanism. I also see it in the way every third English major I knew tried to make it as a freelance writer after college. Excess supply relative to demand has predictable effects on prices.

As a reader, the Internet is great: cheap books in the world’s largest used bookstore (finding ones really worth reading is the hard part). Niche interest books are written and made available like they couldn’t be before.

Many people take to the Internet to complain about the Internet. We can choose to live predominantly offline. What should we infer from the fact that many of us, including, it seems, Tolentino, choose not to?

As is too common, the author needs to read more evolutionary biology. Who are women competing for? Why? How does women’s intrasex competition tend to work? Then do the same with men. Many of the answers are out there, but they’re rarely discussed in MFA and English programs. Trick Mirror is a book partially about unexamined assumptions that nonetheless seems to import an awful lot of unexamined assumptions of its own. It’s got a better book lurking inside it, and that’s why it’s frustrating. A bad book is easy to dismiss and a good book is easy to love.

Almost all the reviews I’ve read have been too dutiful and too fawning. Over time it’s become apparent that many book reviews are written for insiders and by insiders, so the exceptions stand out.

Briefly noted: Fleishman is in Trouble, Empty Planet, The Uninhabitable Earth

* Fleishman is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner): It’s like Martha McPhee’s Dear Money, but with more sex and bad behavior and a pathetic protagonist. I laughed at times, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much. Both books are set in NYC and one unstated lesson might be, “Don’t live in NYC,” as the city’s wealthy have terrible values around money and mimetic contagion is rife, uncontrolled, and unrecognized by the people in its grip. No one has read Girard (a Christian; could some religious practices help with partial inoculation against excessive inquisitiveness?). Extremely wealthy people constantly envy even more extremely ridiculously wealthy people; maybe one could read this as a Staussian and argue that both novels are deliberately critical of their settings, but I don’t really see it.

Consider: “Again I’ll say it: Life is a process in which you collect people and prune them when they stop working for you. The only exception to that rule is the friends you make in college.” There is some truth to the notion of pruning people who you’re no longer compatible with—I’m sure we’ve all done it—but this also makes people sound expendable, and like the moment someone “stops working for you,” it’s time for them to go. That’s a pretty utilitarian view of friends—and the observation is coming from someone who has utilitarian leanings. Some of its truths are universal, though, like, “People who say they like jazz are lying.”

A lot of these people have too much money and are simultaneously too focused on money: a point I’ll return to in a future post that started as an email rant to a friend. One character, wealthy and successful, argues at the novel’s end that everything “sucks.” Sucks—compared to what? One reading could be that humans are discontented strivers; another reading could find that none of these people have any perspective.

Evolutionary biology is the unnamed shadow lurking beneath many characters’s experiences, though I still prefer the “Don’t live in NYC” reading. The best character is Wilson’s Disease.

* Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson). This is a book that stolidly does what it promises and for that reason it will be of interest to some of you. “Demography is destiny,” they say, and, if that’s true, we might all be fucked. Many Western social welfare systems were put into place when populations were booming and implicitly assume they’ll continue to boom; one of the dysfunctions in the present-day United States and Europe comes from the way the old are sucking resources from the too-few young, and the young aren’t bothering to vote against the sucking. Empty Planet is also a book that’s designed to be cited as either prophetic or a cautionary tale about forward projection, with the latter well-represented by books like Paul Ehrlich’s, one of the most famously wrong people of all time.

Articles like, “Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?” are becoming more prominent, and they’re congruent with Empty Planet. The book is written intelligently but style is not its strong point.

* The Uninhabitable Earth (David Wallace-Wells). An excellent book and it too does what it says—I already buy its premise, though. The point remains that essentially no one (or a number that is statistically distinguishable from “no one”) is changing their behavior in response to books like this. Which is pretty depressing; what should we infer from it? Even the superficially liberal people who lives in cities and say they care about the environment won’t stop getting on planes; basically, everyone who is busy recycling wine bottles doesn’t stop to think about how “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1574 lb) of CO2 (but is equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2 when the high altitude ‘climatic forcing’ effect is taken into account).” There are some personal things we can do, beyond the obvious ones around transit and food, like sign up for Climeworks subscriptions, but it doesn’t seem like we’re running, en masse, to do this.

We’re 40 years from the Charney Report, which accurately forecasted global warming and accurately predicted its link to CO2, and we’re still dithering, at best. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. We’ve just collectively chosen not to act.

* Then It Fell Apart by Moby (the musician), is like a non-fiction Michel Houellbecq novel; as with virtually all of Houellebecq’s characters, Moby grows up in an affectless, dysfunctional home. In Moby’s case, his mom has a rotating cast of boyfriends and is too dysfunctional to maintain employment; Moby says he “grew up in the middle of hippie chaos” that scarred him emotionally. His childhood is so bad that he doesn’t mind being a charity case among his friends’s parents “so long as I got to spend time in warm houses with carpets.” Or when his “mom’s friends didn’t seem to have jobs, although they complained sometimes about not getting enough money from their parents back in Connecticut.” Getting a job, showing up on time, and all those bourgeois values look really good in this book. Bourgeois values live, because what’s the alternative? Squalor? Kids with lives like Moby’s? I have a post about Hollywood’s Eve on deck, and that’s another book that’s implicitly critical of people who don’t keep an eye on their offspring.

Coverage of this book has been sadly focused on the least-interesting aspects of celebrity gossip.

* Three Women (Lisa Taddeo). I found it kind of boring. One of the characters is boring and lacks self-efficacy (she needs Stoic philosophy and a stronger sense of personal autonomy); another is not doing anything wrong (if you fail to maintain your vegetable patch, don’t be surprised when someone else volunteers to); and the third and most interesting should have been the focus of Three Women. I’m looking for representative quotes and not finding any—which tells you something. If you’re tempted to read Three Women based on other reviews, try the collected works of Esther Perel instead. Toni Bentley calls it: “The result of Taddeo’s investigation, however, is not a book about the vast terra infirma of female desire, but, rather, an excruciating exposé of the ongoing epidemic of female fragility and neediness in the romantic arena — a product of our insecurity, ignorance and zero self-regard.”

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