Manuscripts

This article on lost books is interesting. I don't share the author's fascination with "book-shaped holes in the intellectual firmament," but I do love manuscripts. An excerpt:

"Why does a manuscript hold more value to us than a published, finished product? 'It depends on what you want to experience,' says de Hamel. 'It is quicker to read Chaucer in a modern edition. But that personal thrill of touching and turning the pages of the original is incomparable. We all want to touch hands with history.'"

Does the Book of Kells lose any of its allure when a mass-produced paperback version is available to buy just feet away, in Trinity College Dublin’s gift shop? No, says de Hamel: 'There are things you’ll see in an original manuscript that even a microfilm or digitised surrogate cannot convey – drypoint glosses, erasures, sewing holes, underdrawing, changes of parchment, subtleties of colour, loss of leaves, patina of handling – even smell and touch and sound, which can transform knowledge and understanding of the text when its scribes made it and first readers saw it.' So, when we mourn lost manuscripts, it’s not just over the disappearance of words, we are also losing an understanding of the process of their creation – the author’s scribbles, their hasty additions, their fraught deletions."

Dead Metaphor

From The New Yorker on J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:

"It’s true that, by criticizing 'hillbilly culture,' 'Hillbilly Elegy' reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it’s also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly 'cultural,' the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by 'economic' or 'cultural' factors. 'Hillbilly Elegy' sees the 'economics vs. culture' divide as a dead metaphor—a form of manipulation rather than explanation more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. The book is an understated howl of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty."

I'm not sure I understand why so many think this book is so significant (e.g. "You will not read a more important book about America this year." --Economist; "Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary." --Reihan Salam), nor, on the other hand, do I understand the fierce criticism it has received. Thoughts? A review may be forthcoming.

Unbounded Gratitude

Another great statement on the importance of books:

"…for some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life…wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean." --Anne Lamott

Houellebecq's Imagined World

Interesting Paris Review interview with Michel Houellebecq, author of Soumission (Submission), a controversial "political fiction" about France in 2020, under the rule of a Muslim political party. Houellebecq is a professed agnostic (once a professed atheist), so I was surprised by some of his thoughts on religion. The interviewer says, "You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting." He responds, "I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." Further, "I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion." I suppose that's rational from a sociological perspective, but my experience has been that most atheists and agnostics are hostile to religion and dismiss it outright. I guess I'll have to read some Comte.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, the French novelist, plays a central role in Houellebecq's novel. He says, "Huysmans [is a classic case] of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God." I'll also have to read À Rebours, but from the ideas presented in Soumission -- this one about aesthetic conversion particularly -- I can't say I completely disagree with the views of this "neuralgic misfit" (New Yorker).

Houellebecq's firmly anti-Enlightenment beliefs are completely antithetical to mine, but as someone who is interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon, I enjoyed his book and have spent some time thinking about the imagined world in which a Muslim party rules France and an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. It seems unlikely to me, but we do live at a time when the seemingly impossible -- for better or worse -- becomes reality.

History and Poetry

Mr. Antolini to Holden in The Catcher in the Rye:

“Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."

In Light of What We Know

From Zia Haider Rahman's In Light of What We Know, a book I can't wait to start reading:

"Even knowledge itself, the novel’s narrator suggests in the book’s final, and distinctly religious, peroration, functioned as a kind of metaphor for Zafar: it was his attempt to find a home. He acquired knowledge—so much of it, and so greedily—not to “ ‘better himself,’ as the expression goes,” but in order to lay ground for his feet to stand upon; in order, that is, to go home, somewhere, and take root. I believe that he had failed in this mission and had come to see, as he himself said in so many words, that understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life."

Favorite Characters

Speaking of Bond (see four posts below), Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven and one of my new favorite authors, chose to play Bond for this article. "Who hasn't fantasized about being utterly competent, impeccably dressed, supremely unflappable, and in possession of multiple passports?" Quite so. From Station Eleven, her excellent post-apocalyptic novel:

“Toward the end of his second decade in the airport, Clark was thinking about how lucky he’d been. Not just the mere fact of survival, which was of course remarkable in and of itself, but to have seen one world end and another begin. And not just to have seen the remembered splendors of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and the amplified guitars, the computers that could be held in the palm of a hand and the high-speed trains between cities, but to have lived among those wonders for so long. To have dwelt in that spectacular world for fifty-one years of his life. Sometimes he lay awake in Concourse B of the Severn City Airport and thought, “I was there,” and the thought pierced him through with an admixture of sadness and exhilaration.”

Compasses and Architecture

Lovely passage from Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby:

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed? We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed live, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment"

All The Light We Cannot See

There were so many things in this book for me to love: it's set during WWII, Monsieur LeBlanc is a locksmith with cabinets full of keys, the heroine Marie-Laure loves books, there are many conversations about science and the sea, the leading women are intelligent, and the writing is lyrical. I didn't even notice it was 544 pages.

“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”

First Monday

As one of my law professors reminded me via his constitutional law newsletter, today is "First Monday," the start of a new term at the Supreme Court. Living in a country without a well-functioning judiciary makes me even more appreciative of the American way, however flawed. If you're interested, here's an NPR piece on misplaced criticism of the Chief Justice, and a Washington Post article on the politically charged election year docket. I'm looking forward to this book by Chief Justice Breyer (as soon as it's on Kindle), and if you want to understand where I'm coming from on any number of constitutional law issues, I suggest this excellent book. Happy First Monday!

Megaphone

From C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain via Open: An Autobiography:

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

The Myth of Confrontation

To use Samuel Huntington’s phrase, one is inclined to see a “clash of civilizations” in these and other recent events. That is, a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations. And this may indeed be the reality. I do not wish to make a definitive argument here in favor of or against Huntington’s thesis, but rather present, by way of a book review, a counter argument that puts it into question.

Read More

Parochial Love

From Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind (book review forthcoming):

It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love -- love within groups -- amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

The Four Agreements

Book Review - During my bar orientation, one speaker gave an impassioned speech about the importance of maintaining one’s good character. She mentioned The Four Agreements, a book by Don Miguel Ruiz, so I decided to give it a read. I had never heard of the Toltec people, but learned in the Introduction that they are “scientists and artists who formed a society to explore and conserve the spiritual knowledge and practices of the ancient ones.” Miguel is a “nagual,” a master of spiritual knowledge, and he is concerned with the many false beliefs we have about ourselves and the world: “During the process of domestication, we form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody.” The aim of the book is to “reveal the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering.” The four agreements, Miguel says, are life affirming.

Ruiz uses lofty spiritual language that does not appeal to me, and my overall impression was that this “practical guide to personal freedom” is New Age fluff. On the other hand, I think it’s good and healthy to be aware of irrational and limiting thoughts, and if you strip away some of the distracting language, the book may serve as a basic reminder of how best to think about ourselves and interact with others. To give you an idea, I’ve distilled the basic principles from the four agreements and included them below. If you do read the book, I’d be interested to know what you think.

1. Be impeccable with your word – "All the magic you possess is based on your word. Depending upon how it is used, the word can set you free, or it can enslave you even more than you know" - We should be truthful and say things that have a positive influence on ourselves and others

2. Don’t take anything personally – "All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you" - We should acknowledge the subjective realities of other people and realize that the way others treat us says as much about them and their belief system as it does about us

 3. Don’t make assumptions – "We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing" -  Assuming you know what people are thinking or feeling is limiting and leads to undesirable consequences – the antidote is to ask for evidence before concluding what people are thinking

4. Always do your best – "In your everyday moods your best can change from one moment to another, from one hour to the next, from one day to another. Your best will change over time. As you build the habit of using The Four Agreements, your best will become better than it used to be" - We can’t achieve our goals by being lazy, and if we do our best we avoid criticism from our “inner judge”

From The Holy Mountain

In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East.

Read More

Emmy Dresses to Go Out

I am currently reading an excellent book, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. I will post a review as soon as I'm finished, but thought I would highlight this passage about women's dress in the early 1900's. At a time when women wear leggings as pants, the level of sartorial consciousness exhibited by Emmy, a society woman of Vienna, is refreshing:

"Emmy dresses to go out. . . she is wearing a pin-striped costume: an A-line skirt with a deep panel at the them cut across the grain and a matching close-cut Zouave jacket. It is a walking costume. To dress for that walk down Herrengasse would have taken an hour and a half: pantalettes, chemise in fine batiste or crêpe de Chine, corset to nip in the waist, stockings, garters, button boots, skirt with hooks up the plaquette, then either a blouse or a chemisette - so no bulk on her arms - with a high-stand collar and lace jabot, then the jacket done up with a false front, then her small purse - a reticule - hanging on a chain, jewellery, fur hat with striped taffeta bow to echo the costume, white gloves, flowers. And no scent; she does not wear it."

To The Wallflowers

Book Review - In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts because we are in thrall to the extrovert ideal, the “omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” In the book she charts the rise of the extrovert ideal in America and how deeply it has come to permeate our culture, something that is not at all hard to believe or accept. She introduces a variety of anecdotes on interaction and preferences, and cites interesting scientific studies on temperament and development. For example, she notes Hans Eysenck’s finding that introverts are more aroused by sensory stimuli, and that over-arousal interferes with attention and short-term memory. Wound together, Cain highlights the powers of the quiet individual and suggests ways for introverts to assert their power and for extroverts to accommodate it.

As one reviewer put it, Quiet was “ploddingly earnest” (NYTimes). It was also overly broad in terms of how extroversion and introversion are defined. However, there were some interesting bits, especially for those not intimately familiar with psychology and the “biology of the self.” The Orchid Hypothesis, for example, and the connection between introversion, sensitivity, and empathy are important yet often overlooked considerations in pedagogy.

The end of the book reads like a sentimental rallying cry to the wallflowers of the world: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest . . . and don’t worry about socializing with everyone else.” In the epigraph to this impassioned final chapter, Cain quotes Anaïs Nin: “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for the center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” That quest is a noble one, and if nothing else, perhaps this book will serve as the impetus to embark on it.