What I’ve been reading

by on October 29, 2009 at 7:01 am in Books | Permalink

1. John Derbyshire, We are Doomed.  He complains because most Western culture today does not live up to the standards of Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Fever
Really.  If there's one thing that can be said, it is that yesterday's
cultural pessimists were more interesting than the pessimists of today.

2. Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
I ended up enjoying this more than I do his trendy fiction.  This
supposed paean to family life collapses quickly into narcissism, but
that's in fact what makes it work.  I was surprised but not shocked by
the part where he deliberately tortures his infant son.

3. Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars,
by Amanda H. Goodall.  I actually laughed when I read the subtitle. 
She discusses fundraising in the second to last paragraph of the book. 
More generally, you can take this book as a radical attack on economic
reasoning: she believes that having a Ph.d. will cause a person to
ignore the incentives that face non-Ph.d.-holding individuals in the
same position.

4. John Keay, China: A History
The clearest and more intelligible treatment I've seen — ever — of
all those dynasties and murky sides of Chinese history.  Yet if I
understand this book on early Chinese history — and no other — should
I in fact be suspicious?

5. J.M. Coetzee, Summertime
I bought my copy up in Edmonton, where it is available for $32.99 or
so.  I thought it was excellent, but also that few people will
appreciate the extent to which the story centers around an autistic

1 Carsten Valgreen October 29, 2009 at 7:45 am

Is 1. an optimistic statement by you?

2 doctorpat October 29, 2009 at 9:24 am

Most culture of the 1970s doesn’t live up to the standards of Saturday Night Fever either.

Let’s face it, that is one of the movies we REMEMBER.

3 Vernunft October 29, 2009 at 10:17 am

Is that all Mr. Derbyshire’s book is about? My, then those excerpts must have been removed before publication…

4 anon October 29, 2009 at 10:34 am

She discusses fundraising in the second to last paragraph of the book.

Talk about living in the ivory tower.

Wow. Just wow.

5 Ed October 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

“He complains because most Western culture today does not live up to the standards of Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Fever.”

How is this incorrect?

6 Ryan October 29, 2009 at 10:47 am

You bought a book in Canada at the current exchange rate and Canadian GST levels? Ouch! 😉

7 Taeyoung October 29, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Its an extreme Western-centric and modern-centric bias, and Keay’s book on India at least was free from that.

Keay had already written a book covering, in minute detail, what Westerners did when they came to India. It was about the English East India Company (not solely their actions in India, but trade with China, the establishment of Singapore, etc.), and tracked their slow conversion into the British Raj. Quite fun and readable too.

8 Barkley Rosser October 29, 2009 at 2:01 pm

I have not read any of these books. However regarding the Socrates one, it is a fact that in the past
it was much more common for presidents of leading universities to be both major scholars and to remain
in office for extended periods of time, often for many decades. There is no question that it is the
pressure to raise external funds that has led to the disappearance of both of these patterns, for better
or worse.

Regarding history of China, there is a deeply and widely held view in China itself that is recognized
in the US only in a scattered way, although most scholars know it well. It is that they view their
own history from the standpoint of the history of the dynasties, with their even being a theory of
“dynasty cycles,” roughly that most of them, certainly all that lasted for more than a century (and
most of the major ones lasted about three centuries, the Han getting to four), started out as vigorous
and competent and practical, and degenerated into corruption and inefficiency and so on, leading to
the emperor “losing the Mandate of Heavan” and thus being ripe for an overthrow by whomever (sometimes
an outsider group like the Mongols or the Manchus, who would then be quickly assimilated to Chinese
culture). If this book does not tell this story, or basically stick pretty closely to it, it is
probably a piece of crap.

9 josh October 29, 2009 at 3:29 pm

“the blind eyes our cultural leaders turn”


10 JohnF October 29, 2009 at 11:14 pm


Point well taken!

11 dataman October 30, 2009 at 1:42 am

Question: How does Tyler seem to able to read almost 4-5 books a week? Speed reader? You skim through them?

Genuinely curious and impressed.

12 cerebus October 30, 2009 at 9:46 am

On 1, does this not make the earlier cultural pessimists point?

13 Richard Baggaley October 30, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Yes I was a bit puzzled about that too – having read the book. Now I come to think of it, it isn’t an attack on economic reasoning either. Has anybody out there actually read this thing?

14 lb November 2, 2009 at 7:01 am

Summertime is on my “to read” list, but from all the reviews out there, it doesn’t seem to have an autistic protagonist (at least not autistic in the medical sense).

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