Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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An Exchange

I decided to try something new here at Traction: an exchange with my friend Andrew Ivers, a fellow St. Louisan behind the great blog Loomings and an editor at World Affairs (all views expressed here his own, etc etc). Andrew graciously agreed to a joint-blog discussion about the intersection of free speech, extremism, and liberalism, a topic that's taken on new urgency after the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. This could've gone on for a while, but for time's sake, we did one post each; our entries are below.

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Andrew,

The attacks in Denmark were depressingly unsurprising to me. I'm afraid that the Charlie Hebdo massacre has ushered in a new epoch in the age of terrorism. Rather than wondering if another 9/11 will happen--which isn't to say it won't; I suspect the West has been beating the odds on that score--it seems that we we will have to wonder when the next Charlie Hebdo will occur. If the speed with which the violence in Copenhagen followed that in Paris is any indication, I fear that our expectations on that front will be calculated in months and even weeks, rather than years.

In the light of the attacks, I've been reading a lot about liberalism and its response to radical Islam lately. The New York Review of Books published two essays on the topic in the latest issue, one about France and one about Norway.

The situations in the two countries are by no means identical. I suppose I've had an inkling of the peculiarities of French republicanism, but Mark Lilla does a nice job of clearly laying them out in his piece. To wit:

"...[republicanism] was used to describe a very specific kind of democratic ideal. It is one that guarantees rights but also envisages a strong state to provide for the public welfare and control the economy, and is proudly national--and therefore hostile to outside influences like Catholicism, international communism, the United States, and now the global economy and Islamism. Classic republicanism is not libertarian or communitarian; it presumes that rights come with public obligations, and that fraternity must be bulit through a common, quasi-sacred education in those rights and duties. One is not born a French republican citizen, one becomes one in school by being initiated into the republican ideal."

It's interesting to contrast that view of republicanism with the one we hold in the United States. The French conceive of the state as this kind of ideal realm into which one is initiated: Everyone has a right to liberty, fraternity, and equality, but only if one first makes clear their allegiance to liberty, fraternity, and equality. There's something noble about this, yes—safe to say that our sense of liberty in the US of A is problematically devoid of responsibilities—but radical Islam lays bare the snake-eating-its-own-tail logic implicit in this notion of the state. France, being a liberal society that values free speech, free assembly, the right to worship, and all those good Enlightenment verities, leaves room for an ideology like radical Islam to take hold. But that ideology is totally hostile to the very liberal idea; it wants to destroy that which gives it room to flourish.

The problem for the French people, then, is how to maintain an open society while reasonably managing the threat of radical Islam. Many (especially on the far right) would solve this dilemma by propounding an ever-more exclusive notion of what it is to be French. But at what point does liberty, fraternity, and equality become as stifling and antidemocratic as the monarchies and dictatorships that the French so proudly rejected?

France's situation has its peculiarities, but really, it seems like a question facing all democracies. What is the answer to this dilemma? The War on Terror has never struck me as a terribly good idea. As President Obama has said (though he has not acted accordingly), it's a war that will never end--at least not with endless drone strikes. It strikes me as an even worse idea as Islamism's preferred m.o. shifts from big, organization-driven attacks to smaller atrocities committed by self-radicalized individuals. You'll never prevent every single one of those kinds of attacks, though we seem willing to try.

Years ago I read an essay by Robert Pape, a terrorist specialist at the U. of Chicago. He argued that we should conduct the War on Terror as we conducted the Cold War at our best: by having a long-term faith in our ideals and trusting that we would win out in the end.

Given that Islamism won't be beaten on the battlefield, it seems like Pape's approach may be the right one, even if we feel (or in fact become) less secure as a result. Do what we can to strike groups like ISIS abroad, take reasonable measures at home, but put even more effort in shoring up democracy and the rule of law, all of which have been sorely degraded by the spectre of terrorism. The irony, of course, is that Islamism's greatest victory against the West is not any of the attacks it has successfully carried out, but rather the extent to which it has caused us to abandon our ideals. That was why the march in solidarity through the streets of Paris after Charlie Hebdo was so heartening. But I fear it was a scene more indicative of liberalism's past than its future.

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Andrew's reply:

The Last Days of Europe by Walter Laqueur lays out pretty well the way in which Muslim immigrants have failed to assimilate—especially in Britain, France, and Germany—despite serious efforts by governments to bring them into society. It’s the liberal case that multiculturalism has failed basically—liberal in the classical European sense, which these days Americans tend to regard as moderate or conservative—and it’s pretty convincing. One line that struck me in particular: “There is considerably more phobia vis-à-vis Westerners and things Western than Islamophobia.” I trust Professor Laqueur because he’s been covering Europe as a journalist and historian for decades. (Disclosure: He also writes for World Affairs sometimes.) The Last Days of Europe came out in 2009 and I doubt much since then would change his argument.

However I’m also aware that chauvinism and xenophobia exist in all societies, especially ones that used to run empires. Poverty and other problems that have little to do with Islam are also in play. So I can’t bring myself to fully subscribe to the anti-immigration arguments as such even though I think they’re an important part of the conversation and often right about serious problems that progressives and politicians in general would rather not consider. David Rieff had a great essay for us a while back about the tendency to oversimplify this issue. It’s a review of Christopher Caldwell’s book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (also from 2009), but it’s a good primer on the complexities of this topic as well. This line really sums up where I stand:

"There is a global crisis in Islam, and it is foolish and stupid of some European multiculturalists (whom Caldwell justifiably skewers) to deny that it exists. It is even more foolish to deny that, because of this crisis, not only does Europe face ongoing, serious, and likely long-lived threats from homegrown jihadist terrorists, but also that assimilating the overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants has become more difficult than it was a generation ago—and such difficulties are unlikely to abate in the future. But to derive from these challenges the conviction that Europe is doomed seems to me quite unwarranted."

Another thing that comes to mind is the very question of what makes an open society. This rousing broadside from Christopher Hitchens says it pretty well. People should be able to say whatever they want, and everyone has a right to hear all that is said. People have a right to harbor private beliefs, but if they want to propose that other people should take them up, or use them to make policy, those ideas should be presented for all to hear, consider, and debate. In order for this to work you have to have a society that trusts this process, trusts that ideas shall be heard and seriously considered. And also trusts that no one will be judged always and forever for ideas put forth—that the contest will be fair, in other words, that players will “tackle the ball not the man.” (Americans might be more polite when they argue, but the British tend to be much better at not taking debates personally, and not expecting them to actually solve problems so much as ease tension and air ideas.) Such a society must also understand that the debate is not just a means to an end but society itself—that society is “an argument without end.” If I could think of a cornerstone of open society with representative government, this would be it. I suppose it’s also what the French republicanism is attempting in its own way: If you can get the most people living on, and holding up, some basic liberal principles—conflicts are never resolved but at least they’re less destructive when fought with honest debate rather than physical violence; plurality is a good thing, especially compared with the tyranny of one faction over the others—then you’ve come farther than you might think.

It’s also worth noting that this process should not be limited to mainstream conflicts. If the mainstream regards an idea as abhorrent, it should be brought out into the light of day and debated. There has to be public trust in the power of better arguments and values prevailing. Society is weaker when these ideas fester in private. Chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, racism—these all occur naturally in human societies, as do exploitation, domination, submission, revolution. Society should discuss these things, debate why they are both natural and usually toxic for an open, liberal society that values human rights and equality under law. Nothing should be outside the pale of questioning, in other words, even the process itself. It should be understood as imperfect but (so far as we know) defensible: Unlike religions or other regimes of strict ideology, a Socratic way of life is less reassuring but truer to the nature of things, messy and adaptable, and as a result fairer to more people. Even children can appreciate this, which could cut into the indoctrination that keeps religions alive. In a truly open society superstition would be perfectly acceptable in private life, but wouldn’t get very far in public life because it is unreasonable. But it could still be presented for debate. I think most people, whether religious or not, would think this a fair compromise, compared to a society in which one ideology or religion is imposed on all members.

I think the best hope for reducing violent extremism would be for superstitions to be vetted in a fair and honest and ongoing debate. If superstitions lead to actions that harm others, society has a right to punish the actor and treat those who approve of the action with suspicion, so as to anticipate future harmful acts before they’re carried out. However society has no right to punish the superstition itself, or the words of agreement. It’s imperfect, but I think it’s fair to say that, whereas no ideas should be censured in a society that can be mature about its openness, people have a right to protect themselves against physical violence. France apparently thinks that expressing ideas that could lead to physical violence is worth punishing, but I’d disagree with that for the reasons Mr. Hitchens discusses. An open society can punish acts that harm others but I don’t believe it can reasonably punish ideas or expressions it deems potentially harmful because an open society believes that no idea is beneath debate, and that better arguments will keep bad thoughts from turning into bad deeds. The risk that this does not work is the cost of liberty, a cost most people are willing to pay. This stance also makes it harder for critics to demonize necessary security measures that limit personal liberty as nothing more than political censorship. Tackle the ball not the man, in other words, until that rare moment when they’re one and the same. This principle alone threatens Islamist extremism, which exploits vulnerable young people by convincing them they have no personhood and should submit to barbaric religious dictates. It would also clash with Mr. Hitchens’s proposal that religion should be “treated with ridicule, and hatred, and contempt,” which only garners more sympathy for it. As long as someone comes forward with it, it’s worth debating. I have no doubt the argument based on reason rather than superstition will win every time.

I realize that having an open society does not fix all problems. It’s human nature to fuck things up and a society will always fail, often gruesomely, if it tries to change human nature. I do believe, though, that most people brought up to appreciate these liberal values would choose them over superstition, xenophobia, violence. The question is whether we can present liberal values to more people so they have at least a chance of trusting in, and contributing to, a more open society. This crucially involves fixing material problems, but it also involves values promotion, which I think is Robert Pape’s point. The leftist elitism that pervades Western media and education, and is therefore a heavy influence on society right now, is often squeamish about the idea of values promotion because it confuses it (too easily) with values enforcement or imposition. Indeed it sometimes is, but that’s not all it is. It can just as often be the strong but respectful presentation of values, in words and deeds, for serious consideration by those who, not without cause, don’t trust mainstream society. Society also gets stronger when it brings in more perspectives, especially differing ones. At the moment though, values promotion tends to fall mainly to the right and far right, who of course aren’t necessarily promoting the same values and are usually doing so in an aggressive, defensive, exclusionary manner. I say save the defensive impositions for times when there are actual security threats, which will also be when the most people will find them legitimate.

My conclusion for the moment is that even though Islamist terrorism will require European societies to undertake defensive security measures, these societies can also do more to help Muslims assimilate in a peaceful and healthy way. If immigrants or other outsiders actually trust that they’ll be welcomed in, assimilation won’t look so impossible, and the fight against terrorism will also gain a native ally. The desire for liberty, after all, is also part of human nature.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

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Of the people, by the people

Laura Poitras's documentary Citizenfour (available on HBO GO to anyone with their parents' password) is in part a gripping portrait of a very particular individual in very particular circumstances. The individual is Edward Snowden; the circumstances are the few days in June, 2013 when he met Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel and revealed that the United States and its allies were engaging in the mass and indiscriminate surveillance of their citizens.

As a human story alone, Citizenfour is incredible, not least because we in the public tend to experience these kinds of momentous, policy-shaping moments through the scrim of newspaper-ese or the fun-house mirrors of fictionalization. Citizenfour, by contrast, puts us in the room as Snowden reveals the details of the NSA PRISM program to Greenwald and Poitras.

This privileged vantage allows us to watch as a person becomes a story. Poitras is especially good at juxtaposing Snowden the person and Snowden the story; she shows us, for instance, Snowden agonizing over his hairstyle while a talking head on the TV in the other room discusses Snowden and his actions. It is an oddly poignant moment, a reminder that at the center of history, there are human beings. Even Napoleon had to use the bathroom.

I have to admit that my main feeling for the Snowden of Citizenfour is admiration. It's always worth being wary of leakers, who tend to have an axe to grind or a complex to fulfill. Snowden is clearly a quirky guy who subscribes to the kind of slightly paranoiac libertarianism at which I--with my continued (and perhaps naive) reverence for the United States Senate--tend to roll my eyes. But the film makes clear that Snowden made a very hard choice at great personal cost. It's clear that he agonized over his decision to go public, ultimately choosing to obey the dictates of his conscience. Perhaps it's my Jesuit theology classes talking, but I have to admire his courage.

(Those who argue that Snowden was merely seeking fame should see Citizenfour, where he comes across as self-serious but not self-aggrandizing, and in any case, it's hard to think that holing up in a Hong Kong hotel and then fleeing to Putin's Russia are prices worth paying for notoriety.)

For all its interest in Snowden, however, Citizenfour's most valuable point is that the debate over whether he was a traitor or a patriot is an incredibly stupid one. Snowden should not be our focus; the programs he revealed demand our attention. Unfortunately, NSA surveillance has been fodder for late-night comedians as often as its been the subject of public debate; we shake our heads and then return to our iPhones. Citizenfour might indulge in a bit of paranoia (I could've done without the buzz-y Trent Reznor soundtrack), but it forefronts the seriousness of what our intelligence agencies are doing in the name of national security, cutting through the pablum about meta-data that dominated official statements after Snowden's leaks. Greenwald, in particular, has a gift for explaining what's transpired: without our consent, the government has begun massively intruding on our personal lives in the name of national security. Hopefully, the film can stir a new sense of outrage among the American people.

That outrage is more important than ever, because the depressing conclusion that Citizenfour leaves one with is that our government, at least where national security is concerned, operates beyond the reach of the citizenry, using sophistic legalisms to justify what it's (confidentially) up to: you voted for your representatives, and they voted for the Patriot Act, and so we can do these things (see footnote). Two moments in Citizenfour bring this reality home: one is the enraging footage of James Clapper, the Director of National Security, telling Senator Ron Wyden that the U.S. does not "wittingly" collect data on its citizens; the other is President Obama's frustratingly measured assertion that America should have a debate on surveillance, but that they shouldn't have found out through a leaker like Snowden. Maybe so, but what evidence is there that the president had any plans to make these programs public?

Unfortunately, if the government can't claim the express consent of the American people to engage in these kinds of activities, it can claim a different kind of consent, the consent of apathy. Whatever public demonstrations there have been against surveillance, torture, and drone strikes have been far too small to put any pressure on those in power to change their ways. The vox populi has offered little more than a shrug on these issues.

Perhaps the American public really does want its government to pursue security at all costs. Most opinion polls, for instance, suggest wide public support for drone strikes. But I think there may be a kind of chicken-and-egg problem here, too: if the people are apathetic, it may be in part because the government feels so large and unresponsive, which gives rise to the kind of wised-up "Don't vote for any of the bastards" cynicism that in turn allows the government to become even larger and more unresponsive.

I don't know how to end this democratic death spiral, but I hold out hope that we can find a way. We haven't done much about it so far, and Citizenfour makes clear the costs of our lethargy.

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Footnote: yes, this is basically how representative government works. The difference when it comes to National Security is just how broadly intelligence agencies have been willing to interpret post-9/11 statutes. Add in the fact that the NSA's secret surveillance program is reviewed by a secret court, and it's hard to justify any of it as constitutional.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

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Back On the Horse

Traction lost its footing in 2014 (har har), lying dormant and neglected.

There were a few reasons for this: moving to a new city, starting a new job, trying to work on more pieces for publication, and, perhaps above all, my renewed revulsion to the sheer amount of stuff written, tweeted, broadcast, podcast, scrawled, and posted about seemingly everything that happens in our culture, from deflated footballs to the fairness of Lyndon Johnson's portrayal in Selma. In the midst of the American Babel, silence often struck me as the wisest course.

Still, the whole point of this blog, if we revisit its founding in Philadelphia in the Year of Our Lord 2010, was to work through some of that cacophony (we recall the origins of this blog's name, which today I find somewhat cringeworthy but nevertheless will stick to out of a sense of loyalty to my younger self: remove the prefix from the word "distraction," and you're getting somewhere)--not necessarily to comment on every last happening (though I often did, back then; I was in college, after all), but to try and think honestly about the things that captured my interest for one reason or another. If anyone else found my musings provocative or interesting or even just wrongheaded, then all the better, but it was largely an exercise for myself.

I've been feeling the absence of that exercise lately. 2014 wasn't a great year for my writing. Outside of a commentary on the Ferguson situation that appeared on the website of St. Louis Public Radio, I didn't publish much. It seems to me that part of the block arose from not having this space to work in, a sketchpad where I don't feel compelled to worry each sentence. So my New Year's resolution for 2015 is to post here at least once a month. It seems unlikely that Traction will ever return to the frenzied pace it maintained in 2010, '11, and '12, but I'm not ready to bid it adieu just yet. As an end to the silence, I present my annual recap of my year in reading. 2014 proved to be a good one.

I finished Shakespeare's Twelfth Night shortly after midnight on January 1st. I've read far more Shakespeare than I've seen; Twelfth Night is the only one that I'd seen performed first. Shakespeare on the page has often made me long for Shakespeare on the stage--the text alone can feel a bit arid. But reading Twelfth Night after seeing it was a wonderfully deepening experience--if nothing else, a reminder to get to the theater more often.

Visiting Walden pond on Thanksgiving Day 2012 was the spur I needed to finally read Walden. If Thoreau's slow cataloging of life in the woods is occasionally tedious, his rich attentiveness to nature's moods, and his own, is revivifying, particularly in our accelerated age. At one point,
Thoreau muses on how fast human beings can move thanks to steam engines; it's probably for the best that he never saw an iPhone.

I continue to think that Maira Kalman is one of the most interesting voices in American literature today: an artist and a writer, her illustrated musings on everyday life are both unflinching and optimistic. The Principles of Uncertainty is an unabashedly cheerful attempt to reckon with what she calls "the too-muchness of it all," an endeavor very welcome in the midst of a grey January.

The rest of the year was largely given over to big books, the first of which was Middlemarch. The classics are usually classic for a reason, and George Eliot's sprawling tale of ambitious lives compromised, disappointed, and generally lived as well as weak human capabilities can allow is no exception.

Before Pope Francis took office, James Martin was the most famous Jesuit priest in America. His slim volume on Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Therese of Liseux, Becoming Who You Are, was a characteristically engaging and conversational reflection on living a life of faith.

The real reading accomplishment of 2014? Reading every one of the 4,000-plus pages of Robert Caro's five books: The Power Broker--about Robert Moses, who ruled New York's civic planning for more than half a century--and all four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Together, the works are a compelling study of power: how it's acquired and used, and the effects it has on those who use it. Master of the Senate, the third volume of the LBJ books, should in particular be required reading for every American, a reminder of what the Senate is supposed to be, and can be, at its best: a place for honest (if inefficient) debate, not posturing and obstruction.

I read Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh the Glory of It All almost ten years ago. While entertaining, it struck me as the epitome of our memoir-centric age: more than a little narcissistic, and occasionally confusing total disclosure with honorable truth telling. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by his new essay collection, More Curious. His report on NASA I found particularly well done: funny and perceptive, it deftly found in our budget-strapped space bureau a parable for our nation's shrunken ambitions.

I reviewed Antonio Munoz-Molina's In the Night of Time for The Hudson Review. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I were more familiar with Spanish literature, but nonetheless, I found his portrait of Spain on the verge of fascism inventive and moving.

Two of the last books I read were about key figures in Lyndon Johnson's life, one his great antagonist, the other his vice president. Jack Newfield's RFK: A Memoir is the best book I've read on Robert Kennedy--not an exhaustive biography, but rather the honest, fond, and sad reminiscence of a hardboiled journalist who knows better than the mythologize. Carl Solberg's Hubert Humphrey, meanwhile, while not terribly well written, provided a competent overview of the life of a consequential but largely forgotten American politician. 

After so much history and nonfiction, I needed a fictional palate cleanser, so I reread Moby-Dick, which I liked even better the second time around. When I first read the novel as an undergrad, I found my patience growing thin with the encyclopedic disquisitions on the whale's size and color, his fins and flukes. I found them totally engrossing this time around (perhaps because I didn't have deadlines to meet)--an obsession with fact in the midst of a story of life's deepest, unutterable mysteries.

Finally, I read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of Edmund Morris's three volumes on our 26th president. Where Caro's prose is majestic and stately, designed to inspire solemn thoughts on the nature of power, Morris's is brisk and lively, evoking the incredible energy and variety that marked T.R.'s life, perhaps the most remarkable our nation has ever seen.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

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A Thought for the Fourth

There is no doubt that the government of the United States in 2014 is inefficient, ineffective, divided, bloated, and, in some instances, corrupt.

And yet I choose to have faith in our government.

Many of my friends think I'm naive for doing so, and I can't blame them. I suppose faith can never totally be expunged of naivete.

But I have faith in our process, and I believe if we spent more time engaging that process than bemoaning it, our common life would be much improved. 

One of the many things that drives me nuts about contemporary American discourse is the way we make saints of the founding fathers. No doubt, they were a remarkable group of men. But they were not perfect, and neither was the system they created.

What frustrates me most about the canonization of Jefferson and Madison and Washington is that it distracts from the work at hand. Rather than putting our shoulders to the work those men would have wanted us to undertake--the hard work of improving our system, of preserving it by adapting it to modern times--we lament that our era is not like theirs, that our leaders are not like they were, and that our citizens are not like the ones they governed. 

The result is that we retreat from the laborious work of governing ourselves, withdrawing instead into the comforting bubbles of cynicism ("Politicians, they're all the same") and righteous anger ("Obama/The Tea Party/The Supreme Court is ruining America!"), venting our anger on social media, where we can be just as bitter as we please. It is instantly gratifying to be angry; it is not instantly gratifying to attend a meeting at city hall. 

In this climate, a certain kind of techno-utopian-libertarianism has come to vogue. To put it very crudely, this movement often proposes: Why pursue anything through public channels when we can solve things with technology and business? It's a fair question, but one that I think is dangerous for the public institutions that bind our unruly republic together--the institutions that the founding fathers set up for each generation to make its own to the best of its ability. Nathan Heller, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Yorker writers, recently articulated the perils of giving up public processes for dead in an article about San Francisco's tech culture:

"Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? ... The truly radical move in the Bay Area would be a return to the messy business of public debate. 

That would be tricky, because public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting. There are many people involved, with disparate ideas, and most big decisions are put to public vote--which means more people and ideas. This is the hell of regulatory blockades and referenda and open meetings to which crazy people come to read bizarre complaints off rumpled notebook paper. ... Getting anything done through public process requires convincing many, many individuals of the rightness of your dream. And it demands that you do that over and over, against a tide of disagreement, settling for half measures rather than no measures. The terms of public process are not personal or romantic but objective; it is language that could have been drawn up, literally, by committee. And yet, because of that, it is a language shared." 

One of the great lessons of American history is that just about every major achievement--from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s--took the kind of time, patience, and compromise that Heller so wonderfully describes. To imagine that democracy functions otherwise is to delude oneself; to abandon the methods that have served us so well (albeit imperfectly) for more than 200 years would be a great betrayal of the things we purport to celebrate tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

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One Trick Pony

Yes, yes, I know, doesn't this guy ever write about anything other than Saul Bellow? I can't help it, folks—I know his books well, and the machinations of publication take time. And so it comes to pass that a little more than a month since I wrote about The Adventures of Augie March for the Wall Street Journal, I have a piece on Humboldt's Gift in The Believer. They're very different in tone, and this will be the last I write about Bellow for a long while. Next up: a piece on David Foster Wallace for the Hudson Review.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

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2013 In Reading

In this post last year, I expressed some ambivalence about continuing to keep an annual list of the books I read. At its worst, the practice had begun to feel a bit like ledger keeping, my desire to finish a book motivated in part by the anticipated satisfaction of entering another mark in the credit column. That's not what I want my reading life to look like.

Thanks to some encouraging words from my friend Andrew Ivers, however, I decided to keep a list in 2013, and I'm glad I did. It's been a while since the contours of my reading life—private, solitary—seemed to so richly illuminate the shape of my life in the world. 2013 was a remarkable year, marked by some of the lonelier nights I've experienced since freshman year of college, but also offering some of the greatest comforts and joys I've known. The books I read were inseparable from this strange, wonderful mixture.

I began the first volume of Alan Ryan's On Politics at the end of 2012, and finished it in late January. Reviews of the volume had treated it as a masterwork of intellectual history, but I have to admit I found it intermittently incoherent. Ryan is not a great explainer; that said, the grand scheme of his project—a history of the intellectual-philosophic framework behind liberalism—is noble and inspiring enough to make me want to tackle the second volume (which most critics seemed to prefer to the first anyway) at some point.

I much preferred politics as served up by Norman Mailer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Hilarious, knowing, and belligerent, this is Mailer's view of America as it entered the last turbulent months of 1968. Mailer may have lamented his inability to produce a great novel, but a book like Siege of Chicago strikes me as more than compensatory.

In March and April I read two very different works for the third time each: Othello, which I was teaching to my juniors in high school, and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which, if pressed, I will offer as my favorite novel. Teaching Shakespeare to 17-year olds was a frustrating experience; the joys of Shakespeare seem so evident to me, but the archaic language proves a powerful deterrent to young men. That said—as with so much of my experience as a teacher—frustration was only the most obvious part of the story. The daily give-and-take over the play still yielded something of ineffable value. That's for another blog post. As for Augie March: the book turned 60 last year, and I was able to turn my third reading into an essay for The Wall Street Journal, surely the highlight of my young writing life.

Teaching also required me to read Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which I hadn't read since I was a junior in high school in the spring of 2007. The book sags a bit in its third fourth, but Heller's angry humor and defiant humanism struck me afresh.

Pride and Prejudice is only the second Jane Austen novel I've read, and if I always feel a bit thwarted by Austen—analysis feels like too stuffy and heavy a business for such delightful works—I nevertheless loved the book, particularly the way that its depiction of romantic (mis)understanding serves as a reminder that courtship—whether carried out by messenger or text message—is an eternally messy business. It helps to laugh at it.

In the late spring, I read two novels by Colum McCann concurrently: TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. I was disappointed by both for different reasons, as I tried to explain in this review.

Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them is a genre-defying send up of graduate school and the tortured souls of the great Russian novelists. The  hilarity is interrupted by moments of shattering beauty, a hallmark of Batuman's that keeps me looking out for her work.

James Wood's essay collection The Fun Stuff reminded me of all the ways that I find Wood simultaneously maddening and brilliant.

I took The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand's history of the intellectual revolutions of 19th-century America, with me to Ireland, and it proved a good companion on such a journey. If Menand's larger project occasionally gets lost in his inability to not pursue each side story far down the road, the portrait of a few great American minds grappling with the modern world is inspiring and humbling. The plane ride home allowed me the chance to read Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, my first Sherlock Holmes novel. Great fun.

Tom Bissell has become one of my favorite writers in recent years, and not just because he sent me a very kind reply to a letter I mailed him in the spring. I loved his collection Magic Hours last year, and his Vietnam War memoir-history-travelogue The Father of All Things was a highlight of this one. Bissell is a rigorous and honest thinker. 

Maira Kalman is one of our nation's most interesting and genre-defying artists. Her book And the Pursuit of Happiness should be read by every citizen. If you don't feel better about life at the end, then God save you.

A summer of unemployment gave me a chance to read Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1789. I've never read a book at once so dry and so fascinating. Wood's portrait of the intellectual revolution that preceded the political revolution was so gripping that I immediately picked up another Wood tome, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic. Much livelier than the earlier book, it nevertheless didn't stick with me quite as well. Still, a fine history of a period about which I knew little.

Tom Bissell says every American ought to read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, and I took him at his word. What to say about an exhaustive documentation of the folly, greed, fear, and misunderstanding that has guided American involvement in the Middle East since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan? Journalism as public service as its best.

John Updike, unfashionably, remains one of my favorite writers. I reviewed the Library of America's beautiful new edition of his short stories for The Millions, a piece that prompted passionate responses, favorable and hostile alike. I'm looking forward to the publication of Adam Begley's Updike biography in 2014.

I revisited yet another favorite novel for the third time in September: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Not much to say except it remains a favorite.

John Steinbeck's treatise America and Americans is as terse, pointed, and clear-eyed as you'd expect a Steinbeck essay on our national character to be.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a remarkable example of the most fervent belief coexisting with the most fearful atheism. I cried at the end, and will be thinking about the novel for a long time, in conjunction with Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a beautiful religious novel that anyone with a spiritual interest ought to read.

Finally, my contemporary selection for the year was Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors, which lived up to the warm reviews it received: an unhurried, meditative story of Westerners at Prague after the fall of Communism, the novel was probably best read, as its title suggests, at my juncture in life: unsure, unrooted, in need of a little faith, expectant, and grateful, very grateful.

Friday, December 6, 2013

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What I've Been Doing

I'm loath to pick a favorite novel, but if you press me, I'll probably settle on Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to write about it for the Saturday Wall Street Journal's recurring Masterpiece feature—certainly the thrill of my young writing career. You can find it here, though for the time being, it's available only to subscribers. Hopefully, that status will change soon. (You could also go to a library and look at last Saturday's paper, but who does that anymore?)

I will also have a piece on David Foster Wallace appearing in a forthcoming issue of The Hudson Review, one of the nation's most venerable literary journals. I continue to hope that this rolling stone is gathering some moss.

Thanks for reading.