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.

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