A Ladder to the Sky — John Boyle

A Ladder to the Sky is a surprise, and has many mini-surprises in it: I kept almost putting it down, thinking that writers writing about writing has been done too many times. Every time I started to think the novel basic, it confounded me. If you have the “Seen it already” impulse, push through the next 30 pages, as you may be surprised, as I was.

I don’t want to spoil those surprises; if the regular writerly bildungsroman is about books progressively emerging, this one is about the ambition monster getting progressively bigger, like a dragon, until it eats its owner. Or does the owner thrive at the end? I can’t say more here.

The third section is narrated by Maurice’s wife; she’s a writer, too (one possible reading of this novel: writers should spend less time with each other), and has just taken a gig at the University of East Anglia teaching creative writing. She has a Polish student who “just seems to hate everyone, me included. I don’t know why.” Hate is an underrated fuel for art and for achievement more generally. We ought to give it greater respect and pride of place. In today’s twee, overly genteel literary environment that seems impossible, which is part of the reason it’s nice to encounter hate as a motivator in this novel.

“I want to be a success,” the early Maurice Swift says, but it’s an oddly empty formulation, like “I want to be an entrepreneur.” A success—but at what? Measured by who? How? It’s an aspiration too vague to be useful, and maybe even counterproductive: don’t focus on success, focus on what you need to do, today, to achieve it.

Maurice doesn’t, and if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel. Instead, he goes through increasingly gross gyrations to be a “success.”

“A ladder to the sky” is, of course, a ladder to nowhere—which may be what this book is about. It reminds me, in some odd ways, of Clancy Martin’s How to Sell. To sell, first believe the lie. Maurice seems to believe the lie.

There is a lot of “And are you working on anything at the moment, Maurice?” talk. It works, yes, but how about a novel about plumbers? The literary status-jockeying does begin to tire, like a long day of riding horses in a circle. By some point, isn’t it nice to do something else or go somewhere else? It’s tempting to call for a five-year ban of writer-narrators in fiction.

Many of the naive statements are deliberate—they are the statements of naive people, or a naive person—but there are a whole lot of them. Getting A Ladder to the Sky requires at least two readings, though, and that’s one mark of a good book.

The Coddling of the American Mind — Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Apart from its intellectual content and institutional structure descriptions, The Coddling of the American Mind makes being a contemporary college student in some schools sound like a terrible experience:

Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Who would want to live this way? It sounds exhausting and tedious. If we’ve built exhausting and tedious ways to live into the college experience, perhaps we ought to stop doing that. I also find it strange that, in virtually every generation, free speech and free thought have to be re-litigated. The rationale behind opposing free speech and thought changes, but the opposition remains.

Coddling is congruent with this conversation between Claire Lehmann and Tyler Cowen, where Lehmann describes Australian universities:

COWEN: With respect to political correctness, how is it that Australian universities are different?

LEHMANN: I think the fact that they’re public makes a big difference because students are not paying vast sums to go to university in the first place, so students have less power.

If you’re a student, and you make a complaint against a professor in an Australian university, the university’s just going to shrug its shoulders, and you’ll be sort of walked out of the room. Students have much less power to make complaints and have their grievances heard. That’s one factor.

Another factor is, we don’t have this hothouse environment where students go and live on campus and have their social life collapsed into their university life.

Most students in Australia live at home with their parents or move into a share house and then travel to university, but they don’t live on campus. So there isn’t this compression where your entire life is the campus environment. That’s another factor.

Overall, I suspect the American university environment as a total institution where students live, study, and play might be a better one in some essential ways: it may foster more entrepreneurship, due to students being physically proximate to one another. American universities have a much greater history of alumni involvement (and donations), donations likely being tied into the sense of affinity with the university generated by living on campus.

But Haidt and Lukianoff are pointing to some of the potential costs: when everything happens on campus, no one gets a break from “call-out culture” or accusations of being “offensive.” I think I would laugh at this sort of thing if I were an undergrad today, or choose bigger schools (the authors use an example from Smith College) that are more normal and less homogenous and neurotic. Bigger schools have more diverse student bodies and fewer students with the time and energy to relentlessly surveil one another. The authors describe how “Reports from around the country are remarkably similar; students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing, liking the wrong post, or coming to the defense of someone who they know to be innocent, out of fear they themselves will be called out by a mob on social media.”

Professors, especially in humanities departments, seem to be helping to create this atmosphere by embracing “micro aggressions,” “intersectionality,” and similar doctrines of fragility. Perhaps professors ought to stop doing that, too. I wonder too if or when students will stop wanting to attend schools like Smith, where the “Us vs them” worldview prevails.

School itself may be becoming more boring: “Many professors say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” And, in an age of ubiquitous cameras, it’s easy to take something out of context. Matthew Reed, who has long maintained a blog called “Dean Dad,” has written about how he would adopt certain political perspectives in class (Marxist, fascist, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.) in an attempt to get students to understand what some of those ideologies entail and what their advocates might say. So he’d say things he doesn’t believe in order to get students to think. But that strategy is prone to the camera-and-splice practice. It’s a tension I feel, too: in class I often raise ideas or reading to encourage thinking or offer pushback against apparent groupthink. Universities are supposed to exist to help students (and people more generally) think independently; while courtesy is important, at what point does “caution” become tedium, or censorship?

Schools encourage fragility in other ways:

“Always trust your feelings,” said Misoponos, and that dictum hay sound wise and familiar. You’ve heard versions of it from a variety of sappy novels and pop psychology gurus. But the second Great Untruth—the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning—is a direct contradiction of much ancient wisdom. [. . .] Sages in many societies have converged on the insight that feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.

More important than ancient sages, modern psychologists and behavioral economists have found and argued the same. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, and doubt are strangely encouraged: “Administrators often acted in ways that gave the impression that students were in constant danger and in need of protection from a variety of risks and discomforts.” How odd: 18- and 19-year-olds in the military face risks and discomforts like, you know, being shot. Maybe the issue is that our society has too little risk, or risk that is invisible (this is your occasional reminder that about 30,000 people die in car crashes every year, and hundreds of thousands more are mangled, yet we do little to alleviate the car-centric world).

Umberto Eco says, “Art is an escape from personal emotion, as both Joyce and Eliot had taught me.” Yet we often treat personal emotion as the final arbiter and decider of things. “Personal emotion” is very close the word “feelings.” We should be wary of trusting those feelings; art enables to escape from our own feelings into someone else’s conception of the world, if we allow it to. The study of art in many universities seemingly discourages this. Perhaps we ought to read more Eco.

I wonder if Coddling is going to end up being one of those important books no one reads.

It is also interesting to read Coddling in close proximity to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Perhaps we need less iPhone and more magic mushrooms. I’d actually like to hear a conversation among Pollan, Haidt, and Lukianoff. The other day I was telling a friend about How to Change Your Mind, and he said that not only had he tried psychedelics in high school, but his experience cured or alleviated his stutter and helped him find his way in the world. The plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s hard to imagine safety culture approving of psychedelic experiences (despite their safety, which Pollan describes in detail).

In The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn and his companions believe that Gandalf has perished in Moria; Gimli says that “Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost… his foresight failed him.” Aragorn replies, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others.” And neither is life: it is not founded on foreknowledge of safety. Adventure is necessary to become a whole person. Yet childhood and even universities are today increasingly obsessed with safety, to the detriment of the development of children and students. In my experience, military veterans returning to college are among the most intersting and diligent students. We seem to have forgotten Gandalf’s lessons. One advantage in reading old books may be some of the forgotten cultural assumptions beneath them; in The Lord of the Rings risk is necessary for reward, and the quality of a life is not dependent on the elimination of challenge.

Here’s a good critical review.

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy — Mark Regnerus

Cheap Sex is more useful, interesting, and informative than many books on the same or adjacent topics, and it pairs nicely with Date-onomics. The books can be read as differing reactions to similar social phenomenon on the ground, with the latter having a more left-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how people should pragmatically react to current conditions, while the former has a more right-wing tilt that nonetheless describes how these conditions came to be. We live in an age in which everyone is outraged or offended by something; when you find something that outrages or offends you, leave a note in the comments. You may find that cathartic.

Although neither book makes this point, I think they’re part of the continuing social reaction to the Industrial Revolution. “What,” you might be thinking, “does the Industrial Revolution have to do with contemporary books on love, marriage, and dating?” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most societies were (relatively) stable most of the time, at least for the duration of a human life; the technological and social conditions one’s parents faced were likely the same an individual would face and the same that individual’s children would face. Cultural and technological change was of course real for much of human history, but it was also relatively slow, allowing people to acclimate to it over generations instead of years or decades.

Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we’ve seen technologies that radically and repeatedly reshape the technological and social worlds. This leads to periodic moral panics, especially but not exclusively around sexuality and religion, in part because we never get a chance to get used to new technologies.

(It’s hard to think of a single book that summarizes the Industrial Revolution; Joel Mokyr has some, Deidre McCloskey has others).

Today, we’re still grappling with the reshaping of society due to pretty reliable contraception. In some ways we’ve had pretty reliable contraception for a very long time (since the ’60s), but in the view of human history, or even human history since the 1750s, we’ve had it a very short time. We’ve spent pretty much the entirety of human evolution without pretty reliable contraception, and that’s shaped our minds, our bodies, our societies, and our practices. And it’s still reshaping all of those things, without most of us stopping to think about what it all means to look at these things in the course of a very wide and long history.

That’s part of what Regnerus is doing. The present moment is the product of a whole lot of past, most of which most of us don’t think about most of the time. But a lot of our current conflicts come from past conflicts that we don’t fully understand. And he’s pointing to that history, when he writes in subheaders about “The transformation of intimacy.” Or when he writes about the “obsession of romance among many, and yet stability seems increasingly elusive.” At the same time, “the ramifications of cheaper sex are just beginning to unfold on a panoramic scale.”

No wonder people are confused. For most of human history, cultural notions around sexuality have been pretty stable. Now they’re incredibly unstable and we’re all making things up as we go along and responding to technologies that have unpredictable consequences.

Regnerus may not be right about many of his conclusions, but he is thinking differently and also not stupidly, which is valuable in and of itself.

I’m also not sure how much you can trust the book’s conclusions, as many are drawn from “nationally representative survey data” as well as “in-person interviews,” the problem being that people notoriously lie in surveys, especially about sensitive subjects, and the same biases occur in in-person interviews. Those weaknesses are part of the reason why books like A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Dataclysm, and Everybody Lies are so interesting: rather than relying on the surveys in which everybody lies, they look at revealed preferences in the form of data from the Internet (and online dating itself).

Cheap Sex itself is written competently but not beautifully. You will not stop to admire individual sentences, and that’s why I’ve not quoted much from it so far. Read it for the knowledge, not the prose. Like many academic books (this one is published by Oxford) it has its share of “You don’t say?” statements, like, “When it comes to relational happiness, then, sexual frequency is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is certainly a net positive for most.” “A net positive:” really? I’m shocked! I would never have guessed.

But it also has its moments of humor, as when an interviewee discusses at length his own romantic dilemmas and then Regnerus writes, “After we turned off the microphone at the end of the interview, Brent asked if we though the and Betsy should break up. (We declined to respond).”

There are also moments I’m still mulling and don’t yet understand:

Meant to be a “haven in a heartless world,” as the late social critic Christopher Lasch described it, marriage is fast becoming a contest, another tenuous social arena in competition with the economic marketplace (for our limited time and energy) and the remarriage market (for second chances and variety).

A “haven in a heartless world:” Regnerus implies here and elsewhere in the book that maybe there isn’t such a place. I’m not arguing that he’s right. But I don’t see a compelling reason he isn’t.

“Persuader” by Lee Child is actually a modern-day fairy tale

At first I was going to write a post about how ridiculous Persuader is: this is a novel in which not once but twice the protagonist somehow outwits opponents who have guns pointed at him. In both circumstances, the obvious, logical thing for the antagonists to do is shoot Jack Reacher, but instead they do the stupid talking villain thing, like no one would do in real life. One of those opponents is so stupid that he throws his gun away in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat with 6’5″ Reacher, like no one would ever do. But this level of inanity, or inanity interpreted in terms of realism, must point to something else, much as the implausibility of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects made me realize that it isn’t trying to be realistic.*

Persuader is a fairy tale about a knight who is caught between the dark forces of chaos, evil, and greed on the one side and the grinding powers of bureaucracy—FBI and military—on the other. He’s a kind of small-c conservative who is interested in the intensely personal and where it intersects with larger forces of darkness, chaos, and excessive order. Chaos is bad because of the way it destabilizes relationships; excessive order is bad in the Reacher universe because it inhibits Reacher from inflicting his own moral code on the universe, and it’s a universe where the bad guys are conveniently universally bad and the good guys are conveniently universally good.

So what myth, or myths, are we getting from Persuader? That the military is sacrosanct and its training superhuman; that bureaucracy is stupid and the individual not; and perhaps most of all that we are less part of a network than we are a making, doing, acting, achieving supernode. This last is a particularly appealing idea, like life after death, and also in most ways a wildly inaccurate one, which is where the mythic elements of Persuader (and maybe the other Reacher books) come into play.

The novel feels paradoxically fascistic and libertarian at the same time, with different strains predominating at different moments, like someone who cannot quite decide between Judaism and atheism, but Reacher is a person of the immediate moment, not of the mind, so he never considers bigger pictures. His is not philosophy. He does think a little about his own past but not in any systematic way. He likes the specifics of gadgets but not of culture. What details he knows (about guns, say) tells as much as those that are superfluous.

The writing is not especially bad for its genre but not especially good either. Towards the beginning, the narrator (likely Reacher) says things like, “Connecting the pillars was a high double gate made from iron bars bent and folded and twisted into fancy shapes.” “Fancy shapes:” that’s a Reacher-like phrase, as he’s too busy kicking ass or whatever to know the term. “I” and “it” have to be the most common words in the novel, apart from the basics. College students sound like they’re described by someone’s hard-scrabble dad (“He had long messy hair and was dressed like a homeless person” or “He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.”) We never really get out of this basic register.

Often the novel is just boring: “It showed me she and Eliot had at least five guys who would follow them to hell and back.” We can do better than the cliché but we don’t. Not here, not in many places.

How Jack Reacher was built” persuaded me to read Persuader, but one Child novel is enough, especially because Lanchester says it’s the best of them. Overall, the myth of military invincibility does more harm than good, and I prefer my supermen in different guises, perhaps with some weaknesses and humanity.

Still, the novel is not as offensively written as Camino Island, but I still have no desire to read another, ever, and love for Lee Child tells me something important about the person who loves his work (just as someone’s admiration for Elmore Leonard tells me something important, and positive, about theirs). As always I’m open for suggestions and if you have them leave them in the comments.

I did read to the end and remember very little, apart from the plot’s many absurdities. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more analyses of thrillers and similar works in terms of fairy tale and fantasy, which is what a lot of these works really are. Are they out there? I can’t imagine Child being a popular target for academics today, but perhaps there’s work I don’t know of.


*
When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students sometimes ask how I (or someone) figure out that the story probably isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Part of the answer involves implausibility combined with coherent writing: If something is well-done but seems ridiculous, it may be that symbolism or other non-realistic modes are involved, and if we as readers suspect that’s the case, we should start asking why and how.

The Ends of the World — Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World is titled well and is also fascinating—one of the best books I’ve read recently. It tells five (or arguably six) linked stories about mass extinctions; like most people I’m aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I hadn’t realized that in many respects that extinction is actually less interesting than the other four. The dinosaurs steal the show, yet the other extinctions are at least as important—which is part of what makes The Ends of the World valuable. The 500-million-year history of complex life on earth is something most of us, including me, don’t know much about.

We should. For reasons that become apparent as the book moves forward, we may be repeating many histories of mass extinctions. Brannen traces how. Each chapter is set up like a detective story: People figure out that a mass extinction occurred, and paleontologists and geologists have to work backward from crime to culprit, examining various hypotheses along the way. The structure is effective but also difficult to excerpt.

But the preceding sentences also don’t give a flavor for the writing, which is excellent, and it matches the information. For example, the worst extinction of all time isn’t the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the dinosaurs died—it’s the End-Permian mass extinction, when nearly all plant and animal life on earth died. Spoiler alert: in the End-Permian event, massive volcanic activity in what we now call Siberia ejected huge amounts of carbon, methane, and other gasses into the atmosphere. But, in addition to that, lava ran into something else:

The Siberian Traps intruded through, and cooked, huge stores of coal, oil, and gas that had built up over hundreds of millions of years during the Paleozoic. The magma had no economic motive, but the effect was broadly familiar: it burned through huge reserves of fossil fuel in a few thousand years as surely as fossil fuels ignited in pistons and in power plants.

Uh oh:

Today humans emit a staggering 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, perhaps the fastest rate of any period in the last 300 million years of earth history—a period that, you’ll note, includes the End-Permian mass extinction. Burning through every last oily drop and anthracite chunk of fossil fuel on earth would release roughly 5,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. If we do, the planet will become unrecognizable.

If there is slight good news, it’s that the End-Permian mass extinction event range from 10,000 gigatons of carbon to 48,000 gigatons. We’re unlikely to hit figures that catastrophic, but it’s dispiriting enough to think that, for the last several decades, we’ve had the technologies we need to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and we’ve simply chosen not to use them. I’m young enough that I may be trying to explain the psychology and politics behind that decision to grand children in fifty years,

Still, we’re living through an extinction right now, but one that goes back ten of thousands of years. Brannen writes:

even Africa lost 21 percent of its megafauna, with larger animals getting hit the hardest.

British geologist Anthony Hallam (with a somewhat unseemly triumphalism) cites this record of precolonial ecological ruin to ‘dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and pre-colonial societies. The notion of the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology were it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature.’

Oddly, for a book about deep time and long time, the paper quality of the physical object is shitty. One would think that publisher (and author, although I don’t think most writers get much of a say on this) would want to produce a physical book that will last longer than the decade or two that most modern books are made to endure. The lousy paper stock implies, “We don’t really give a damn about the final product we produce.” Which is one of the points of the book: Most of us humans don’t.

And we don’t connect our own actions to global consequences. Towards the end of the book Brannen writes, “avoiding [seven to twelve degrees of average, planet-wide warming] will require the goodwill of energy companies to leave 80 percent of their profitable reserves in the ground, and the creation of staggeringly large new sources of carbon-free energy.” But he’s mixing up supply (from the energy companies) and demand (from consumers) here. Energy companies only dig up all those fossil fuels because people want to burn them. If people stop wanting to burn them through some combination of conservation and alternative technologies, energy companies will have no reason to dig.

I’m part of the problem. Back when I had a car, I could’ve bought a Prius, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking closely about energy efficiency at the time and got a Civic. The better car probably only would’ve saved a couple thousand gallons of gas, but multiplied across many people that matters. A friend just moved to L.A., did a similar calculation (or no calculation) and bought some kind of Subaru that probably cost more than, say, a Chevy Volt. Both of us are probably better informed about many planetary challenges than the average person and both of us are sending a signal to those dastardly energy companies to dig up more fossil fuels (and thus contribute to global warming).

Sort of like how people buying books printed on shitty paper are also encouraging publishers to keep printing books on shitty paper.

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