Golden Hill — Francis Spufford

Golden Hill might be the most amazing novel I’ve read since Lonesome Dove: after a string of duds I’m pleased to find a novel so cleverly written and plotted. The latter point matters: every time Golden Hill seems to be too pleased with its own reproduction of eighteenth-century language, a shocking turn reminds one of the stakes, and that the novel is not primarily an exercise in language mimicry (though it is that too, and pleasingly). Laura Miller’s review induced me to it, though the review doesn’t and maybe can’t give a good sense of just how delightful the book is. Most of us who aren’t seeking tenure won’t care how much it relates to 18th Century antecedents or 20th Century recreations of those antecedents; we care if the book is any good and gives pleasure, and it does. The machinations of money and money transfer drive the plot: has the first great novel that turns on Bitcoin or Ethereum been written, yet? Long before digital coinage, Mr. Smith shows in New York, in 1746, and says little of himself, but he presents a bill for cash. The counting-house man, Mr. Lovell, wants to know, as does the reader, “What is this thing? And who are you?” Smith says, “What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveler who owns it.” The dialogue on the pages that follow is a witty duel, and Lovell reminds Smith that “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir.” Can Smith and Lovell trust each other? And why? The trust is not only commercial but romantic and sexual as well: Lovell has a pair of daughters, who are intrigued by this curious man, who is rich—or is he? If he is attempting to steal money, what else might he attempt to steal?

The sentences satisfy, and the style is winkingly old, with many clauses strung together: “As a mason must build a wall one brick at a time, though the finished wall be smooth and sheer, so in individual pieces did Mr. Smith’s consciousness return to him, the next day, as he lay in the truckle bed of Mrs. Lee’s gable-end bedroom, and assembled the world again.” Or: “Mr. Lovell, to whom few things retained the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did, as if firm ground underfoot had been replaced on the instant by a scrabbling fall in vacuo—was, at the moment the door opened on Broad Way, hesitating in his parlour.” We learn much about Mr. Lovell, there, and why he may be unusually suspicious of Smith, whose novelty continues through the novel. He is busy watching others, but he “failed to perceive, as he reflected and considered, that others were meanwhile reflecting and considering upon him.” His perspective seems stable at first, but he is often surprised, as his own assumptions about others prove wrong. First impressions are often dashed, as are second-, third-, and fourth impressions. The best impression of the novel may be not the first time through but the second, when what seem to be minor, though depressing, details, like Smith noticing “a coffle of shuffling black men in irons underscoring the street music with a dismal clank.”

Still: antecedents. Golden Hill reminds me of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, though Golden Hill is blessedly shorter. The Sot-Weed Factor is amazing, but too many plot turns leaves one reeling and discombobulated, like an excess of drink; as with many things is life, some is good and too much is not better, and by the midpoint of The Sot-Weed Factor a yearning for resolution sets in, and tedium overcomes investment. Like Golden Hill, it decides to situate, as best it can, the reader in the mind of a man from centuries ago. There is much happening in Golden Hill’s many metaphors. Septimus tells Smith, “the ships come and go again, and the most part of the traffic of souls passes straight through. They walk up from the slips to the streets and are gone; the continent devours them. New-York is but a gullet. Few stay.” “A gullet:” a piece of the digestive track, and few of us wish to be subjected to digestion. The New World was brutal, then. Death everywhere, and, horribly, “we have no theatre” in New York. Naturally, a play is eventually got up, and plays into the rest of the book, which is braided tightly together, the early parts reappearing in the later.

The way Golden Hill speaks of today’s dilemmas garbed in the past is interesting, but maybe most interesting is the way that it, like The Name of the Rose, is a text composed of other texts, and made the better for it. The hook, though, remains the plot: it is in motion, with the plays within plays within plays, and political theater and theater theater are much the same—as they are today and likely will be tomorrow. Each time I felt sure-footed reading Godlen Hill, something shifted, and left me off balance, in a way that’s hard to describe easily felt as a reader. I didn’t foresee the ending, though it seems obvious in retrospect: a bit ridiculous, and with some unlikely elements, but it fits. “Where do you get your ideas?” is among the least good questions that can be asked, and yet this novel combines elements so unexpectedly that I’d like to ask its author about them.

Links: Modern narcissism culture, technology saves the world, freedom, and more!

* It is obscene: a reflection in three parts. One of the best essays I’ve read in recent memory, and one that speaks to the narcissism often cloaked in rhetoric of fairness or caring. It’s consistent also with “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.”

* Technology saves the world: a counterfactual examination of what the pandemic might have been like.

* Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Bomber Mafia, may be largely simplified and inaccurate.

* “U.S. Housing Market Needs 5.5 Million More Units, Says New Report: Construction of new homes in the last two decades lagged behind historical levels, contributing to a recent surge in home prices.” Building more housing, fast, is probably the simplest way to get a lot of money in everyday people’s pockets, fast.

* “Kids need freedom, too.” One of these obvious statements that is nonetheless mostly absent.

* Is the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis likely wrong?

* Whatever happened to flirting?

* “‘How Much Damage Have My Colleagues and I Done?’ A former dean of students loses faith in how colleges handle sexual assault.” What appears to be a rare admission, for this venue and from this kind of person.

* How children fail, a review of a fascinating book that’s many decades old and yet, based on the excerpts, seems like it could’ve been written yesterday. Ordered. And now mostly read: many of its comments resonate with my classroom experiences, even though I don’t teach children.

* Why everyone hates the media: surprisingly subtle and useful. Most “information” is not about information per se: this essay is compatible with the one immediately linked below.

* John Stuart Mill on why most Internet arguments are pointless: most arguments and beliefs are based on people’s feelings. Citing facts, or apparent facts, in response to feelings rarely changes anything.

* “ American Basketball Pro Spent Eight Months in Secretive China Detention A human-rights group says a legal form of Chinese detention that often leaves people cut off from family and lawyers is used at a ‘mass level’”

* Good interview with Marc Andreesen.

* Antonio García Martínez, cancelled by Apple, on future plans.

Links: Empowerment and projects, the need for close reading, digital and real worlds, and more!

* The empowering of the American mind.

* A project of one’s own, by Paul Graham, which articulates something I’ve felt and yet not expressed.

* “A backlash against gender ideology is starting in universities?” The question mark is mine.

* Close reading for grant writers.

* “China’s Uyghurs living in a ‘dystopian hellscape’, says Amnesty report .”

* “Decadence and Andreessen’s Dilemma.” On the distinction between digital and real world.

* “Truth, Reading, Decadence,” which isn’t a great title for an essay about how the passing of Harold Bloom reflects declining interest in studying English literature. You’ll see much in common with my comments here.

* “Amy Chua and the age of infantilization.” Plausible, and very congruent with Jonathan Haidt’s work.

* “Built-to-Rent Suburbs Are Poised to Spread Across the U.S.: Economic forces and generational preferences are leading to a new kind of housing: subdivisions designed for renters and managed like apartment buildings. What does it mean for suburbia?” This is close to my position and thinking: I’ve watched a lot of people go bankrupt or nearly bankrupt over housing decisions. For most people, buying property is an extremely leveraged (and thus dangerous) bet that can easily go wrong, and the bet relies on the cost of housing going up over time—which it has, since the 1970s, in many “superstar cities”—but it hasn’t everywhere (owners in Los Angeles have made a ton of money—people in Baltimore, less so). When a person is “buying a housing unit,” it’s more accurate to say a bank is buying a housing unit, and then someone is paying the bank for the next thirty years.

Buying a housing unit typically incurs closing costs in the range of 5 – 10% of the housing unit, so a putatively $400,000 house, to make any real gains at all, needs something like $40,000 in gains due to sale costs. Buying a housing unit also implies that work and commuting will remain relatively constant: long commutes are among the worst things a person can do for quality of life, and they effectively lower a person’s hourly rate. Maybe buying a house made a lot of sense when the typical household had one working man in it, and that man worked one or two jobs in his entire life. It makes a lot less sense for couples, both of whom work and change jobs frequently. The “buy a house, live in it for 30 years” model works pretty poorly today. Perhaps, with the passing of the Baby Boomers, we’ll see smarter and more varied housing options open up. Our current system was designed for the lives of the 1950s, not the lives of the 2020s. Housing, healthcare, transit, and education are the highest parts of a typical person’s budget, usually but not always in that order, and three of those fields are the focus of The Great Stagnation, and for good reason. People who study those areas mostly know what the problems are and what solutions might look like, but stakeholders in the status quo in each area fight change. That fight is defining life and demographics today, even when the notional issue is something else.

Right now, renting is cheaper than buying in all 50 major metros in the U.S., though this is unlikely to persist forever.

* Ezra Klein interviews Sam Altman on general artificial intelligence (AGI) and many other topics.

* How does Asia work?

Links: Influencing influencers, fierce nerds, information mimetic warfare, and more!

* “[Letter from Los Angeles] The Anxiety of Influencers.” Perhaps it’s age speaking, but being an “influencer” sounds terrible, if every aspect of every relationship and interaction must be commoditized. Even actors get time out, and time off.

* “Camille Paglia declares cinema done,” and I’d mostly agree: it’s been finished by TV and social media.

* Paul Graham on Fierce Nerds.

* How the structure of United States elections privileges the right, right now at least.

* Hollywood’s efforts to kowtow to China. The information warfare war is arguably underway.

* How to avoid “high conflict.”

* On how SpaceX’s new Starship will change the world and enable the colonization of the solar system.

* “The Dubrovnik Interviews: Marc Andreessen.” Not just the usual, and not for the easily offended.

* “The Taiwan Temptation:” another article about whether the democracy will be invaded by the autocracy.

* Cicadas from 1800 to the present.

* Passing someone else’s software off on your own, and other incredible stories. I’m subscribing to this guy’s blog.

* “Europe is now a corporate also-ran. Can it recover its footing?

* “How many American children have cut contact with their parents?

* The artist and the censor, not so different from the mini-essay I wrote here.

* “Silicon Valley’s ‘Mission Protocol’ Revolution Is Beginning to Attain Critical Mass.” Consistent with my thesis in “Dissent, insiders, and outsiders: Institutions in the age of Twitter.”

Links: Sanctimony literature, the purpose of literature, the new literary bad boys, and more!

* “Sanctimony Literature,” one of the best essays I’ve read on literary fiction in recent memory, and it captures something I’ve noticed but not been able to articulate. Strangely, I’m old enough to remember literary persons trying to affiliate themselves with free speech, free thought, and being bad. Still, I think the essay mostly misses the point on the Sally Rooney books: the characters do sometimes proclaim, “I am a communist,” “marxist,” or “feminist,” but the labels are window-dressing on what the books really cover, which is human relationships and their frailties and pitfalls. No readers outside of a few Manhattan and London precincts care about the socialist labels; everyone else cares about the relationships among the characters. Lots of people proclaim themselves to be lots of things but are more fully revealed in what they do, and who they relate to and how, than in whatever labels they assume. I can’t speak to the Ben Lerner novel, and the Emma Cline novel The Girls I started but quit: it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen to unsupervised teenage girls who get involved with cults, just as the main passion that leads guys to start cults is fairly obvious too. A novel like The Girls is implicitly conservative, with a small “c:” the protagonist’s parents know or should know what’s up, and they should stop her, or try to stop her, from doing the obvious, but they don’t. Maybe the conservative critics of the ’60s and ’70s were more right than the boomer hedonists of those decades, and now the censorious Millennials are swinging round to that point of view. Still, the sanctimonious is boring and there’s plenty of boring sanctimony in modern fiction, which may explain why capital-L Literary culture seems to be, if not altogether dead, then at least to have retreated to the status of poetry in terms of its effects and influence on everyday life. Sanctimony literature may also explain why the most interesting writer today is Michel Houellebecq, who is extremely anti-sanctimony—and many actual readers like Elena Ferrante, who is also European and eager to describe a whole world, even as few people would describe the Solaras as good people. Yet the Solara males often get the girls, or women: perhaps Ferrante gets something the sanctimonious writers don’t.

The two most prominent literary writers of the last decade aren’t American, and maybe it’s worth asking why, and what they’re doing that readers respond to. Look at someone like Gillian Flynn: whatever she’s doing in Gone Girl, it isn’t sanctimony.

* “The new literary bad boys.” Maybe. I’m not sure how much longer conventional or legacy publishing is going to exist. See also the first link, above, as this one is in some ways a continuation of those thoughts.

* James Carville: “‘Wokeness is a problem and we all know it.’ According to Carville, Democrats are in power for now, but they also only narrowly defeated Donald Trump, ‘a world-historical buffoon,’ and they lost congressional seats and failed to pick up state legislatures. The reason is simple: They’ve got a ‘messaging problem.'” Stuff that seems obvious but is apparently not. Carville hits similar notes in a Persuasion interview, too. Not to be repetitive, but his view arguably links to the first two link sets in this post.

* “Advantage, GOP.” On how the structure of elections favors Republicans right now, due in part to gerrymandering and in part to the way the urban/rural split has developed over the last few decades.

* Fungi on Mars?

* “China is a paper dragon:” a different point of view than many of the articles linked in the last year or two, and one that I’m not sure is true, sadly.

* “The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars.”

* “A Prophet at the Barbecue: Larry McMurtry, 1936–2021.” Lonesome Dove is a great book, and a book so great that it justifies and explains a whole career. If you’ve not read it, read it first.

* David Brooks on how “wokeness” ends. Maybe. See also “Social Justice Groupthink;” I’m younger than the author but have observed similar trends. It’s important to emphasize, though, that these trends are affecting a minority of students—a very low minority, but probably fewer than 10% of students even at very expensive schools.

* Founding vs inheriting, by Balaji S. Srinivasan.

* On luxury beliefs and signaling. Sanctimony is often a luxury belief.

* “Can Apple change ads?” Deeper than the title suggests.

Links: Carbon removal, the boomer world, the nature of free speech and thought, and more!

* “Charm Delivers Stripe’s Carbon Removal Purchase Ahead-of-Schedule.” One of these stories that might turn out to be hugely important but that aren’t widely foregrounded.

* How might we react to definitive proof of alien intelligent life? Our reaction might be muted, if it continues to be somewhat plausibly deniable radar and infrared footage, or perhaps some decades-old alien craft material. Most people’s problems are immediate and concrete, and they’re not going to be alleviated by this news.

* “Millennials are stuck in the world boomers built: The conservative case against the baby boomers.” Someone who takes the rise of TV and decline of print literacy seriously: “One thing I did in the research for this book was to go back and read all of the doomsayers at the time of the TV revolution who said that raising a generation glued to their screens was going to scramble their brains and make them stupid. [. . .] I think most of their dire predictions have been vindicated.” “Twilight of the Books” is great, it came out in 2007, and I don’t think I’ve seen it, or some of its main ideas, cited since.

* “The Disintegration of the ACLU,” something that I have, sadly, noticed: I’m not a member any more.

* “The Gatekeeper: Krugman’s Conversion,” a title that doesn’t do justice to this article about many topics of interest in the last 30 years.

* “Why a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a catastrophe for China and the world.” That said, World Wars I & II were both highly preventable catastrophes that occurred anyway, and China is now ruled by a single dictator who can dictate its invasion policies. There are differences and history doesn’t repeat itself, but the similarities should worry us, as should the intrinsic brittleness of a single, flawed person with so much consolidated power.

* How people get rich now, by Paul Graham.

* “Why has no one made a better Goodreads:” a point annoying for being possibly true.

* “It’s Time To Translate Shakespeare—Into Contemporary English.” Strongly agree.

* Maybe the things that appear to be UFOs, are just drones and blimps. On the other hand, some of the eye-witness reporting by pilots would presumably not be susceptible to such misinterpretation. See also the piece above about how we might react to definitive proof of aliens.

* On Ari Emmanuel, inspiration for Entourage character Ari Gold.

* Why are many institutions and businesses leaning left, even as the population as a whole is fairly balanced? A more interesting-than-typical answer.

* What went wrong in Game of Thrones, and how what went wrong led to the show’s disappearance from the culture.

* “1969 vs. 2021,” some highlights: “it was easy to be pro free speech when it was hard for extremists to get control of a newspaper or a TV station. It turns out that a more democratized media environment has a lot of people longing for central control and suppression” and “I think that in 2020, just as in 1968, the public longed for a lowering of the political temperature.”

* Ross Douthat on “The Two Crises of Conservatism,” which seems accurate to me; that said, one could have written a similar essay in pretty much any of the last five years.

Links: The problems with rent, life in Moab trailer, Larry McMurtry, and more!

* “Fighting Back, At Last: New activist groups are responding to the spread of illiberal tendencies on campus and beyond.”

* “Life Lessons from a Moab Trailer.” Better and more interesting than you think; the real punch is from the last 10%.

* “U.S. rent has increased 175% faster than household income over past 20 years.” And people wonder why the birth rate has cratered.

* On Larry McMurtry.

* “Religious fervor is migrating into politics.” It’s hard to be paying attention and to have missed this shift.

* ‘The Narrative Is, “You Can’t Get Ahead:”’ on the peculiar racism of “anti-racism” efforts; one might be reminded of the idea that, if fascism arises in the United States, it’ll be called anti-fascism.

* “Bear Is About Much More Than Having Sex with a Bear.” An essay about reading and how reading changes over time.

* “The Woke Meritocracy: How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system.”

* “A Medical Student Questioned Microaggressions. UVA Branded Him a Threat and Banished Him from Campus: Kieran Bhattacharya’s First Amendment lawsuit can proceed, a court said.” Questioning “microaggressions” yields institutional macroaggression: a darkly funny outcome.

* Dana Gioia on Becoming an Information Billionaire, a favorite Conversation with Tyler.

* “The genius of John von Neumann:” a good candidate for the smartest person in the 20th Century, and maybe ever.

* “The Nixon Seminar with Peter Thiel.” The transcript is rough but Thiel is consistently interesting.

* “A City’s Only Hospital Cut Services. How Locals Fought Back. Apollo-owned LifePoint is embroiled in a dispute in central Wyoming that now stretches to Washington.” Why are the healthcare prices too damn high? This is a field with real monopoly problems.

* This describes me well: “For infovores, text, in contrast to photos or videos or music, is the medium of choice from a velocity standpoint. There is deep satisfaction in quickly decoding the textual information, the scan rate is self-governed on the part of the reader, unlike other mediums which unfold at their own pace (this is especially the case with video, which infovores hate for its low scannability).”

Links: Carbon capture and storage, free writing and writing freely, why is the rent too damn high, and more!

* More on carbon capture and storage: covers familiar ground, but these types of pieces keep popping up.

* Why have blog audiences declined? We can choose to be free: but mostly we choose Facebook.

* On America’s barren suburbs: “Cities are not massive subdivisions divided by multi-lane highways, where life only exists at the strip mall or in empty suburbia. There is actually a diverse urban culture, with nice walkable downtowns. And even if you live in the suburbs, there is something there. You may find train stations, subway stops. A square with stores and restaurants. Parks, playgrounds. Hiking areas etc.” They are “massive subdivisions divided by multi-lane highways” in the United States, sadly.

* “Jacques Barzun and Friend: What did a distinguished historian, and possibly a great man, see in an unkempt young would-be writer?”

* “China threat to invade Taiwan is ‘closer than most think’, says US admiral.”

* “It’s All Just Displacement,” on the problems and incentives facing the media.

* People love the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods. So why isn’t it top of the agenda?

* “Chinese government officials and state media are increasingly incorporating woke talking points in their attacks on American values.”

* “U.S. rent has increased 175% faster than household income over past 20 years.” The need to build more housing is acute.

* “The psychedelic roots of Christianity.” Maybe.

* “The Era of the Wood Skyscraper Is Arriving.” Now the U.S. just to make it legal to build them.

* “How U.S. media lost the trust of the public.” “How could it not?” might be the more interesting question.

* “The Ambiguous Utopia of Iain M. Banks.” I’ve never been able to get into the Culture novels, but maybe I should try again.

Links: Writers and media, private-school hypocrisies, the fear of ideas, and more!

* “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene:” Detailed, hilarious, amazing.

* “Beware of Books! A new moralism is gripping the literary world, treating grownups like children.” I’m surprised more writers don’t decide to market themselves as “the writer they don’t want you to read.” It’s also possible that the most interesting material is being self-published, leaving the big publishers with conformism.

* “Hackers, Mason Jars, and the Psychedelic Science of DIY Shrooms.”

* The Dr. Seuss thing is really about bad and over long copyright, which is probably a better framing than the usual. t

* Moore’s Law for everything, by Sam Altman, a very useful and interesting piece, but, as often happens, I’m struck by the fact that we can’t really get to some of the low-hanging fruit today, like dramatically liberalizing zoning laws. We could have a much less expensive world right now, but we don’t, for purely legal and political reasons. Let me also lay out a slightly pessimistic case: AI continues to do cool things at the margins, yet, like nuclear fusion power plants, it’s always a few years away from transformative effects. We keep getting it almost working right, but not quite getting there, and so the true transformative potential is much further out than appears right now. I’d like Sam’s vision to be the correct one.

* Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals, from 2015 but anticipates the last six years.

* “‘We’re going to lose fast’: U.S. Air Force held a war game that started with a Chinese biological attack.” Notice: “[T]he Pentagon was largely distracted fighting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades.” Let’s hope the saber rattling remains saber rattling. But, also, “European countries send warships to South China Sea in Beijing pushback.” So who knows? Let’s not find out.

* Bryan Caplan on social desirability bias (SDB) and other matters.

* “Oregon Is Blazing a Psychedelic Trail: A very promising mental health experiment is taking shape in the West.”

* “Measuring Teaching Quality Higher Education.”

* Scenius, or Communal Genius.

* “The Substack controversy’s bigger story.” Also, in separate Substack news: “Writers who can command a paying audience have heretofore been significantly underpaid. That points to the real reason why the media has reason to fear Substack: it’s not that Substack will compete with existing publications for their best writers, but rather that Substack makes it easy for the best writers to discover their actual market value.”

Links: What’s happening with colleges, with China, with class, and with secrets

* Symbolic Gestures Won’t Advance Social Equity: What wealthy colleges could do if they actually cared about helping the poor. In general, the amount of verbiage that is virtue signaling, versus the amount of concrete action, should be noted.

* Apple works with China—but not the FBI.

* “A Modest Proposal For Republicans: Use The Word ‘Class.’” An interesting idea but most vitally an interesting diagnosis.

* “Sex Tapes, Hush Money, and Hollywood’s Economy of Secrets.” Not on precisely the same subject, but “Nude selfies: are they now art?” also appeared, and is primarily interesting for the venue in which it’s published.

* Longfellow and the Decline of American Poetry.

* “The Upzoning Wave Finally Catches Up to California.” Great news that deserves greater attention.

* Well-done review of the new Philip Roth biography, which avoids lots of the typical boring stuff. I still think Roth has lots of excellent sentences but his novels are under-plotted and often dull for that reason. I used to like them better.

* “Howling in Unison: A new book detailing the psychic conflicts in the Soviet Writers’ Union is a cautionary tale as much as a remarkable history.”

* “Is This the End of French Intellectual Life? The country’s culture of argument has come under the sway of a more ideological, more identity-focused model imported from the United States.” Is the United States per se the problem, or is it something about the Internet itself?

* Have universities abandoned their commitment to free thought and the exchange of ideas? See also Academic Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to free thought and expression.

* “On Being Blacklisted.”

* “What Is Happening to the Republicans?” Detailed and not stupid.

* Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny.

* “As Mushrooms Grow in Popularity, a Radical Mycology Movement is Emerging: In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms explores fungi’s role in nutrition, food security, ecological healing, and medicinal sovereignty.”

* Google’s new certificate programs and the college degree.

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