Briefly Noted: Of Human Bondage, Three-Ring Circus, and One-Billion Americans

* Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman: Sports are reality TV for guys, and this book covers the inside drama; maybe guys use sports as a way of developing knowledge of human personalities and foibles that are otherwise available in fiction (noting that fiction may depict obsession and the achievement of technical mastery infrequently). Unfortunately, Three-Ring Circus is full of weird repetitions and language infelicities, despite its impressive reporting. An example: “Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s King Kong Bundy-esque bodyguard and constant companion,” “When [Shaq] finally was reached, he told the team he expected three members of his personal entourage (including his longtime bodyguard, Jerome Crawford,” “The altercation was finally broken up when Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard,” and “O’Neal writes that he and his bodyguard, Jerome Crawford, arrived at the coach’s house unannounced.” How many times do we need to be reminded of who Jerome Crawford is?

Then there are comments like: “Walker [a Laker player] often returned home at 6 a.m., took a quick nap, forgot to brush his teeth, then darted off for practice with the scent of Budweiser and Bar Hag IV on his breath.” Bar hag? Does he mean a woman at a bar? What separates a woman at a bar and a “Bar Hag?” Where does the line of demarcation occur? If she is a Bar Hag, is Walker the male equivalent? These kinds of jarring comments throw me and should, I think, throw many readers. They’re a shame, because there’s an excellent book in this not-bad book.

* One Billion Americans by Matt Yglesias: I already basically bought the premise of this book before starting, but One Billion Americans goes through a lot of the data showing the immigration is good, the U.S. is not densely populated, and people moving to an effective legal and regulatory regime is good for the people who move here and the ones who are already here. An excerpt summarizing One Billion Americans is here, and I’ve not seen good, data-informed rebuttals of its main point. “Good” and “data-informed” are near-synonyms in the preceding sentence, but most beliefs manage to achieve neither. The two most important policies Yglesias likes, liberalizing zoning codes (the same ones raising the cost of housing across the country) and improving transit, are good whether you want the approximate number of Americans to stay the same or want it to triple. There are some tentative steps in these directions (earlier this week, Austin, Texas finally approved some light rail lines), but they could use some federal heft behind them.

So that’s the technical side of things, but I think the cultural and psychological might be neglected; there are problems in the U.S., like (potentially rising) narcissism and small-minded self-satisfaction, that may impede arguments towards greatness. One way to look at the United States today is as a nation of persons who think, “I’ve got mine, and I don’t give a f- about anyone else.” That’s a fair reading of contemporary zoning laws, and of the federal government’s attitude: about 40% of federal spending goes to straight subsidies of old people, and most of those old people bought housing units decades ago; they’re effectively being subsidized twice. And subsidies to old people aren’t going towards the future. Younger people, meanwhile, are often most focused on themselves and getting laid. Who’s the real constituency for greatness today? When we can gaze endlessly at ourselves in the smartphone’s reflection, why bother changing? That’s not my view, but it’s a view compatible with many local and national voter priorities today. My view is closer to Yglesias’s, but I’m not sure there’s a great way from here to there.

This review is good, as is this one. My other challenge with One Billion Americans is that I’ve read a lot of the same stuff Yglesias has; it’s nice to have so much of it in one convenient place, though.

* Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham: Lots of subtle commentary on human nature, but it’s a windy and often boring novel. Don’t know where to go next with the plot? Introduce the protagonist to another random person. Most of the school years should be cut, and Of Human Bondage was too early to say what really went on in many all-male English boarding schools of the day: some of the masters accepted low pay and social status in return for a horrifying “reward” of sorts.

If it were shorter, it could be great—but lots of individual observations are astute, and the basic struggles of Philip, the protagonist, are modern feeling: the fading power of religion, the struggle to find work, the struggles between the sexes (at one point, Mildred “had taken their measure. They were boys, and she surmised they were students. She had no use for them.”). Mildred is right, but for reasons irrational Philip takes to her, perhaps seeking out rejection. It’s not a great book, but it is sometimes a compelling one, and its most compelling aspects occur in its last quarter: not when Philip is young, but when he is older. Not when he has promise, but when he sees where life has brought him, which is different than what he’d imagined, as it is for most of us. There’s a bit of a cupcake ending, but the struggle is felt throughout.

Philip’s uncle, a vicar, tells Philip to get in line: “You’ve been brought up like a gentleman and a Christian, and I should be false to the trust laid upon me by your dead father and mother if I allowed you to expose yourself to such temptation” and Philip declines: “Well, I know I’m not a Christian and I’m beginning to doubt whether I’m a gentleman.” How one reads their relationship probably depends on the reader’s age: a younger reader sees Philip wanting to be himself, and the older reader may understand the Vicar’s good intentions despite his limitations.

Heady stuff for 1915. I wonder how many people then pretended to be Christians but weren’t in their hearts, and I wonder too what the equivalent of a “gentleman” is today.

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.

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.

Briefly noted: The Devil’s Candy, Maigret and the Old People, Fantastic Fungi

* I was looking for a book and not finding any to satisfaction, so I grabbed The Devil’s Candy, which is still great, and it’s also refreshingly devoid of PC nonsense. It’s the story of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, the movie, which details how no single decision is bad, exactly, yet the accretion of good-seeming-at-the-time decisions leads to a bad movie. It’s got lots of droll humor, like a visit to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) annual tribute dinner, where “Occasionally the bold experimenters honored there [by the AFI members] were in the odd position of accepting praise from the very people who had ruined their careers, the studio executives who pretended to admire daring films but didn’t want to finance them.” Today, cameras are digital, but little seems to have changed. Hollywood is supine to China and Netflix exists, but the basic story shape remains.

* The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; this book is almost relentlessly boring, yet I kept reading for some reason. It’s more family saga, blah blah blah, lots of feelings, I guess. The sort of book that explains why murder stories are so popular; one years for darkness, intrigue, a knife in the back, shocking and horrible family secrets (what is the real relationship between Maeve and the narrator?), but all we get is dribs and drabs of things.

* Fantastic Fungi, edited by Paul Stamets: Think of it as a collection of mushroom photography, though it has many short essays too. Speaking of forest ecology and the relationship of mushrooms and mycelium, one contributor says, “Mushrooms are literally ‘the tip of the iceberg.'” That’s not true: mushrooms are figuratively the tip of the iceberg. Stamets writes, “We’re going down a slippery slope. As we deforest the planet and cut down old-growth forests, we accelerate carbon loss…” Forests in the United States are actually growing, and the same is true of Europe. So we’re not universally cutting down forests; that’s a huge problem in Brazil, but the U.S. and Europe are heading in a net positive direction. Another contributor says, “Nature has kept us alive since the beginning of human life.” Sort of: you could also say “nature” has been trying to kill us since the beginning of human life and just hasn’t succeeded yet (nature also gives us uranium, which we can use to kill ourselves en masse). Another writer says, “every decision comes down to the bottom line because the world is run by economists and accountants.” More accurately, the world is run by consumers and voters. Someone cites Bolt Threads’s efforts to create “leather” from mushrooms, but the company seems to have begun putting out press releases in 2016 and no products seem to be on the market today. I could go on. There is too much sleight-of-mind in Fantastic Fungi.

I’ve not seen the film.

* Maigret and the Old People by Georges Simenon: A fine Maigret. As usual, characters claim things like, “I know hardly anything,” and then turn out to know things. Maybe a lot of detective fiction is appealing because everyday people turn out to be essential in a way that is not felt in a lot of everyday life. The old people of the title turn out to be decrepit titled European “nobility,” and one does not have to stretch far to see the book poking at the absurdity of hereditary titles.

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?

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.”

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

Recent books: The Earth Below, A Mind at Play, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel

* The Earth Below by Katy Barnett, a dystopian novel that seems promising but has way too much “My heart was racing and sweat poured down my face” and “for a moment his eyes lit up with an unalloyed smile” kinds of sentences. There isn’t much novel in the language of this novel, though “Then, like a drop of black ink diffusing through water, a dark thought spread across my mind” is impressive. Problem is, The Earth Below loses the war against cliché. I’d read the next one Barnett writes; The Earth Below shows promise.

* A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, an okay biography of Claude Shannon, a guy whose accomplishments happen almost entirely in the mind, leaving us not much of interest in his life itself. If you’re deeply interested in information theory and its history, this is probably good. If you’re looking for a good yarn, less so. The lives of brilliant intellectuals often don’t lend themselves to interesting biographies.

* An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk by Allison Schrager. It sounds entertaining and is entertaining; there is a bit of the Gladwellian strategy or formula of story leads to research leads to conclusion, so if you’re tired of that structure you may not like this book so much. I wonder how many people are like this woman: “Before starting at the brothel, Starr lived a double life: marketing executive by day and exotic dancer on the site. Or it might be more accurate to say she was a high-paid exotic dancer ‘on the conference circuit’ who had a corporate job on the side.” There is also an implicit warning about academia, as Schrager describes her dissertation: “I shut myself away in the library and spent the better part of my twenties isolated, trying to solve that single math problem. Five years later, when I actually solved it, I expected something wonderful to happen; instead, everything fell apart. My relationship with my adviser deteriorated, and the sudden death of a close friend left me emotionally shattered. My worse enemy, however, was my ambivalence.” This would be an interesting book to read next to Lonesome Dove. Have you read Lonesome Dove? I saw copies of it many times before I did and wish I’d read it sooner.

* The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams. This is more evolutionary biology; if you’ve already read a lot of it, you don’t need this one. The highs are high, though:

In many ways, the world today is a primate paradise. Compared to any other period in human history, we’ve got lower infant mortality rates, longer lifespans, less violence, greater wealth, and more opportunities to pursue the goals that suit us. We should be over the moon… but we’re not. Most of us are reasonably happy, sure. But we’re hardly ecstatic, and some of us are simply miserable. As Geoffrey Miller observes, the world has never been better, and yet many people have to take special medications to avoid suicidal despair. Now obviously, life has never been a picnic. However, some aspects of the modern world may be misaligned with human nature in ways that produce novel psychological problems – problems that, like breast cancer and endometriosis, are largely diseases of modernity.

or

We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds.

I found myself skimming a lot of familiar material.


As always if you know what I should read, let me know.

Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” uses the word “crisis” in the headline, but the “crisis” cited seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen a fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

To me, the story reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives; I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for a very long time. It’s like “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I will likely agree—but what I do, individually and anecdotally, is less significant than what users do and want to do. “Revealed preferences” matter: every time someone uses Facebook, that person shows they like Facebook more than not—and find it valuable more than not.

Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis. Facebook continues to grow; if their growth is slowing, it is because virtually everyone with an Internet connection is already on Facebook. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would also say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

So why is the media so vociferously anti-Facebook right now? The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server, for example, was insane. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw ceaseless wall-to-wall coverage. The NYT and other media sources were so worried about being accused of bias that they had to keep pushing the email server as a story. At the same time, we don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol.” While she has a point, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter. Facebook reportedly has two billion users, a substantial fraction of the entire human population. It has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe current Facebook users will find an alternate way to spend/waste time online (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook.

So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism: I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

Way back when, I read the tech nerd site Slashdot, which for many years declared “year x is the year of Linux on the desktop.” The year people would get tired of paying for Microsoft operating systems and embrace freedom. Normal people didn’t care, and Microsoft was 100 times more monopolative than Facebook. Today, most desktop machines still use Windows, Linux is still 1% of the desktop population, and MacOS has grown some in popularity but is still too expensive for most people. What tech nerds and journalists desire is not necessarily what normal people care about.

EDIT: Former newspaper editor Andrew Potter explains succinctly how the media works in “Why everyone hates the mainstream media: Judgements about status are embedded in almost everything aspect of the news. To read the news is to be insulted — which is why people are fleeing the mainstream media in droves.” Since November 2016, the media has been ceaselessly working to lower Facebook’s status. It seems to have succeeded in terms of lowering Facebook’s status among journalists and media pundits, but it seems to have failed to do much to change user behavior. Most media pieces attempting to lower Facebook’s status use every kind of rhetoric conceivable except the numbers Facebook cites in its quarterly reports.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — Elena Ferrante

By now everyone who follows the book-o-sphere has read Ferrante, whose books are very hard to excerpt: there is something weird and hypnotic about the way they roll on, through characters’ lives, in ways that seem banal in the moment by moment but add up to something. They just keep going and though they should be boring they somehow aren’t. Laura Miller says that, “The real heart of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is the economic striving that drives their heroine throughout her life,” which may explain why they are boring when they are boring: at times they are too close to New York Times editorials about supposed income inequality. In the time and place Ferrante writes about economic striving was probably much harder than it is today, and Italy has long been an economic basket case relative to other first-world countries, but one still senses lurking editorializing beneath the story, and it’s hard for me at least to believe that anyone was crazy enough to believe those who identify with communism, which has been definitively shown to fail.

Yet those long sections end and move back into the specific and personal (“it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth”). Elena, the protagonist, is pleased at one point that “I had married a respectable man.” But “respectable” to her transmutes to “predictable” and thus boring: is that the way of most relationships today?* One wonders: every strength has a weakness and the sameness of “respectable” is dull to her and, she feels, dulls her. Respectable is a word that connotes a person’s character in the eyes of an imagined community, rather than the eye and mind of a single individual. To the community respect may be valuable. To Elena it becomes a drag. She needs to re-start the relationship process, which is charted in so many novels (one favorite is On Love).

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’s world of broken relationships, it is hard to perceive why anyone marries at all. Perhaps they do it because they feel they should. Perhaps they do it for the struggle that is (mostly) lost. Ecstacy plus time means fermentation into misery. Where does one go from here? To the next cycle.

Boredom incites riots and deaths and breakups. It is the characteristic modern feeling, which is why Houellebecq is so popular. He gets boredom like no one else. In the first three books, at least, Elena never understands herself. Critics have praised the depth of Ferrante’s characterization. I perceive the opposite: most of the characters, except perhaps gangster Michele Solara, are all surface and no depths. They don’t perceive themselves. Maybe none of us does. Maybe that is our curse, which is to consciousness’s curse.

The book feels very nineteenth century in its scope, and that’s a good thing. I keep looking for “representative” quotes and finding none. Certain words, like “felt” and “feel,” recur so many times that there are good essays to be written about them, just like the idea of being “respectable” mentioned earlier. The books need a book of entire response to do them justice; even the essays I’ve read pull a single strand and, in doing so, ignore the rest of the world.


As Elena says: “I was unhappy. I lay in bed, discontent with my situation as a mother, a married woman, the whole future debased by the repetition of domestic rituals in the kitchen, in the marriage bed.”

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