What I’ve been reading

by on February 23, 2016 at 12:31 am in Books | Permalink

1. Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life.  Fun, lots of sex for a serious book, and it makes you appreciate the diversity of human beings.

2. Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz.  Delivers what the title promises, in short, readable form; this book is good for either the jazz lover or the beginner.  I am a big fan of pretty much anything Ted Gioia does, and this book has not broken the streak.  By the way, here is Gioia on Ortega y Gasset and his continuing relevance.

3. Albert Camus, The Stranger.  Worth a reread, especially if you grew up with something other than the Matthew Ward translation.  Surprisingly current in its orientation and interests.

4. L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon.  I enjoyed this book and found it reasonably analytical.  There is a “home court” advantage even during hockey fights, and having sex before a big game doesn’t seem to diminish performance.

5. Joshua Gans, The Disruption Dilemma.  A very good introduction to the game theory and institutions of “disruptive innovation,” the book also dispels many myths about that concept.

6. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance.  I’m surprised this novel doesn’t attract more ongoing attention, even if some of the final plot choices seem a bit strange or forced.  It is a brilliant critique of utopianism, socialism, Romanticism, and also philanthropy.  I kept on thinking Arnold Kling should read it.  In any case it is a marvelous story, a good read, and chock full of social science.  You’ll find one controversial reading of the story here (jstor), a panoply of speculative hypotheses here (pdf).

1 Melmoth February 23, 2016 at 12:51 am

#1 – “the diversity of human beings”, you mean that Ted Hughes seems like a classic Alpha male but one who devoted his life to poetry?

2 So Much For Subtlety February 23, 2016 at 7:08 am

It has got a lot of criticism for being a hatchet job on a man who has got a lot of criticism already. Especially for its accuracy. So I have not read it.

However, if it does show diversity, surely a lot of that would relate to Sylvia Plath whose thinking, in general, seems fairly unexpected right up to her suicide.

3 Andrew February 23, 2016 at 1:19 am

But try explain in this day and age Ortega y Gasset and/or Kierkegaard without being accused of elitism ( and not the good sort of elitism like ordering quinoa)

4 Axa February 23, 2016 at 5:25 am

If you quote Ortega y Gasset in Español you’ll confuse the accusers 😉

5 Anton February 23, 2016 at 1:59 am

#2. The article Ortega y Gasset is interesting, but I have to admit I doubt the worth of aesthetic expertise. He cites wine tasting as an example where it should be clear that some people are experts: “And if the mass mentality has taken over wine-tasting, what can we expect from film reviews or rock criticism?” Yet there’s little reason to think that wine tasters are working under objective criteria. See, e.g., http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis. How much more difficult must it be to establish aesthetic expertise in other even more subjective fields (art, literature, etc.)? My sense is that the best you can hope for is just to have the critic act as a guide — e.g., try going down that path, note that fauna behind the tree, etc. Or a coach: concentrate on this part, practice this, here’s how to get the right mentality, etc.

6 dan1111 February 23, 2016 at 3:34 am

Knowledge can certainly increase appreciation. However, to the extent that an art form cannot be appreciated without an instructional manual, it is dead.

No one needs to read a book to understand why they should like Louis Armstrong. But a lot of recent jazz music will not connect with anyone but other jazz experts. This is a sign of artistic failure, in my opinion. It is the musical equivalent of academics writing papers that only other academics in the same narrow field will care about, and have no bearing on anything that matters.

No one blames the public for not appreciating the nuances of a paper on macroeconomic models. And yet in the world of the arts, it is the audience’s fault if you don’t “get it.” It is just a sign of the bad taste of the boorish masses.

7 Urstoff February 23, 2016 at 9:11 am

That seems to be the case in many (maybe all) art forms: concert music, jazz, poetry, visual art. Maybe literature is the only one that hasn’t been overtaken by theory-laden specialists given there are still some commercial necessities to getting a literary work published.

8 dan1111 February 23, 2016 at 10:08 am

I dunno, I think there is plenty of completely inaccessible literature.

Also, there is lots of art that is accessible and popular (popular music, or movies for example). But for some people “art” must be appreciated only by the elite by definition.

9 Thor February 23, 2016 at 11:22 am

Good points. Re: literature and theory-ladenness, I would add that perhaps pop lit hasn’t been overtaken in the way you suggest, but criticism certainly has. And certain high brow works certainly have.

10 chris purnell February 23, 2016 at 11:50 am

Perhaps you should try Julian Barnes ‘The Noise of Time’ which deals with three phases in the life of Shostakovich.

11 ChrisA February 23, 2016 at 3:56 am

I agree that the average wine critic couldn’t tell red from white if blindfolded. And Parkers analysis is usually about alcohol content – the high the alcohol the higher his ratings. But I do enjoy reading about wine. It’s the same with theatre or book critics – generally speaking I don’t agree with my favourite critics, but I read them anyway for the enjoyment. I guess its like having a conversation with someone about a topic you enjoy, their opinion is no better than your own, but it fun to discuss things that you like.

12 Thor February 23, 2016 at 11:24 am

I think this is slightly off the mark. Isn’t it the case that Parker prefers robust New World reds, and that alcohol content correlates with these reds?

13 Vivian Darkbloom February 23, 2016 at 4:16 am

Who said “average is over”? It’s taking over the world!

14 prior_test1 February 23, 2016 at 2:53 am

‘Surprisingly current in its orientation and interests.’

Yep, a significant percentage of the American electorate seems interested in killing an Arab. Anyone else wonder when Trump will have ‘Killing an Arab’ by The Cure added to the musical selections of his rallies?

15 ChrisA February 23, 2016 at 3:58 am

I would guess that, prior to 9-11, the subject of killing Arabs never crossed the mind of most Americans – why would it? I don’t think it unreasonable for people to be a bit wary of Muslim Arabs since then.

16 Asher February 23, 2016 at 4:44 am

Do you think it not unreasonable for people to be a bit wary of Christian whites since Oklahoma City? If so you are being balanced in your own views but doing nothing to redeem Trump.

17 So Much For Subtlety February 23, 2016 at 5:01 am

Christians had nothing to do with Oklahoma City – and yet the Left continues to argue that we should be wary of them.

And as it happens, the militia movement collapsed after Oklahoma City and never really recovered. Which shows most of their members had some basic decency.

18 anon February 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Cliven Bundy (where’s Ammon?) got 200 armed militia and fellow travelers to the brink of armed insurrection in 2014. They thought they were thousands, right up until only like 50 showed up at Malheur.

If you listen to the Twitter chatter, many of them still think they are thousands. They are looking for a new situation. See also the preposterous story of Sheriff Glenn Palmer.


19 The Original D February 23, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Remember the Republic of Texas yahoos? They haven’t been in the media much but just one year ago the FBI was investigating claims that one of their ilk was issuing phony writs and subpoenas.


20 Sam Haysom February 23, 2016 at 10:28 am

I launch this attack in the name of Allah. Liberal response nothing to see here. Islam you mean like the relgion of peace, it couldn’t have been involved.

I’m not a Christian. Science is my religion. Liberal respond-Timothy McVeigh is a christofascist.

This isn’t even false equivalency it’s just plain lying to try and offset inconvenient facts.

21 anon February 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm

You should know that’s complete nonsense. You launch an attack in the name of Allah and the liberals send a drone up your ass.

22 So Much For Subtlety February 23, 2016 at 6:16 am

You know it is interesting that you picked that year. Because five years before that, Arab terrorism hit America when a Palestinian murdered a potential future President, Bobby Kennedy. That was the same year that America opened its doors to mass immigration from the Muslim world.

There are now millions of Muslims living peacefully in the US. Can you name a single Arab country where Americans can live peacefully outside a heavily guarded compound without running a real risk of kidnap, murder or worse?

23 Ricardo February 23, 2016 at 6:36 am

You carefully worded your comment about Sirhan Sirhan to avoid stating a well-established fact about him: he was raised as a Christian and has no connection to any Muslim groups or ideologies.

UAE and Qatar are reasonably safe. I’ve known Westerners who have lived in Morocco and Tunisia without living in walled-off enclaves.

24 Ricardo February 23, 2016 at 6:52 am

Also, Wikipedia confirms that Sirhan Sirhan’s family moved to the United States when he was 12 years old. That means they entered the U.S. in 1956 or 1957 at the latest.

25 anon February 23, 2016 at 12:24 pm

The movie True Lies went with Arab terrorists seeking a nuke in 1994, so obviously it was an “available fear” by that point.

26 gabe February 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

“Back to the future”

muslim terror stuff was in dozens of movies pre 9/11

27 gabe February 23, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Sean Connery movie….arab terrorist place nuclear bombs on twin towers in the movies.


28 anon February 23, 2016 at 12:40 pm

wow, 1981.

29 gabe February 23, 2016 at 1:12 pm

US Government/NORAD also ran drills of hi-jacked planes crashing into world trade center….no word on if the drills had muslim terrorist


30 rayward February 23, 2016 at 6:50 am

Cowen needs to add this to his reading list: Todd Rose, The End of Average: How We succeed in a World That Values Sameness. It differs somewhat from Cowen’s formulation in that it questions the usefulness of average as the standard of measure, recognizing that underachievers succeed as often as overachievers and that average ignores the unique characteristics, and strengths and weaknesses, of the individual. I say it differs “somewhat” from Cowen’s formulation in that Cowen’s focus is also on the individual and individual achievement rather than the “average” (in the sense of group achievement). This is one of those instances where those of different ideologies can intersect, always a worthwhile achievement. [I found a review of this book in the most unlikely of places, in the Business section of the NYT. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/science/book-review-the-end-of-average-todd-rose.html?ref=business ]

31 anon February 23, 2016 at 9:16 am

> Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz.

I question the need for such a book. It is well-known that there are more people who play jazz than there are people who can stand listening to it.

32 Sam Haysom February 23, 2016 at 10:29 am

This is wonderfully put.

33 The Original D February 23, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Couldn’t one say the same of polka?

34 Anton February 23, 2016 at 6:05 pm

This is bullshit. Jazz is ready for a massive resurgence — at least if Kendrick, Chance, and their followers keep embracing it, and jazz players step up to the plate by making jazz music with broad brushstrokes (not just tiny little nuances, like usual) in the tradition of Davis, Coltrane, etc.

35 RPLong February 23, 2016 at 10:45 am

In general, I find people tend to underestimate Hawthorne’s brilliance. He was a truly great writer, and it’s a shame that his reputation these days rests almost entirely on The Scarlet Letter, even though that, too, is a great book.

36 Thor February 23, 2016 at 11:30 am

It was a remarkable period in American letters, or any period — the American Renaissance I mean: Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. (Though I am not a fan of Emerson or Thoreau: to me, the giants are the first three.)

37 Staff February 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

#2. Ted Gioia is great as his brother Dana, the poet. Both share a principled but nuanced approach to the arts and neither is afraid to upset apple carts. Both remind me of Camille Paglia and not just for being Italian Catholics but in their approach to reading texts and promoting the arts. My favorite book of Ted’s is the one on love songs. Does a great job of combining criticism and history. Wonder if Paglia has thoughts on them?

38 MKBARCH February 23, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Ted Gioia is indeed outstandiing; if the new book beats “What to Listen For in Jazz” by Barry Kernfeld, I’ll be very impressed.

May be a reasonable candidate for a Converstaion with Tyler; if some shorter ones without the live audience, & less of a big-special-event atmosphere, are in the cards.

39 carlolspln February 23, 2016 at 4:26 pm

+ 1

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