What I’ve been reading

by on September 12, 2016 at 12:55 am in Books | Permalink

1. Against Everything, Essays, by Mark Greif.  The worst of these are still well-written and interesting, and the best are among the best essays being written today.  There are many good sentences: “Were “In the Penal Colony” to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.”

2. The Blind Photographer, edited by Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding.  Here is an article on Pedro Martinez, one such photographer from Oaxaca.  An excellent book, thought-provoking about both the nature of disability and photography, and also the mind’s eye.  Here is a good National Geographic article on the volume.

3. Harvey Cox, The Market as God.  Harvard theologian argues that economists have started to argue as theologians do.  The closing sentence is “When The Market does not have to be God anymore, it might be a lot happier.”

4. William Domnarski, Richard Posner.  This biography focuses on Posner the infovore, and is itself a big pile of information.  We should not forget Posner’s role in founding the Journal of Legal Studies and Lexecon when awarding him a much-deserved Nobel Prize.  Every page of this book has information, recommended, even if (because?) it is a bit of a splat.  Here is one cited account of Judge Posner: “One of my favorite lines is when he would characterize a lawyer’s answer as “mere words” when in fact he wanted a “real reason.”

Do not miss Posner’s descriptions of various (unnamed) colleagues on pp.193-195, for instance: “…certainly ambitious, but that cannot be rated a fault.  He has a vaguely cold and supercilious exterior; of the inner man I cannot speak because I do not know.  But I do have trouble seeing him actually marrying an outdoors girl [as was the rumor], as he is very definitely the hot-house intellectual plant.”  Another, from the philosophy department at Chicago, was “a timid, small-bore type.”  Also stunning are pp.249-250, when Posner discusses his own naivete when witnessing the behavior of others, most of all his colleagues in academia.  pp.251-256, which close the book, are just sublime.

I don’t think I will have time to get to Lynne B. Sagalyn’s Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan, but it looks very good.

I read only a fragment of Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe, but found it well-written, to the point, and illuminating for both the specialist and general reader.

1 Ray Lopez September 12, 2016 at 1:23 am

Zero comments, seriously? The medieval expert book reminds me of this week’s Economist obit on Runciman? the Byzantine UK expert, who wrote a book that was once reviewed as a book that would be likely understood by only six specialists in the world, and the reviewer was not one of them, lol.

2 Ray Lopez September 12, 2016 at 1:46 am

On Amazon.com, I have some of the “least helpful” reviews around (though I’ve reviewed hundreds of books), because I am honest and I judge a book by its cover or title, and I tell people at the end of my one-star review that I’ve not read the book (curiously, when I omit this sentence, I get a lot of thumbs up). In this spirit, I will review these TC books.

1. “Against Everything” – I looked at the table of contents, and “What was the hipster?” sounds interesting but, like the other stories, is likely to be dated in a few years. But if a good writer Greif is worth reading for his style. I wonder if Greif got grief as a child over his last name?

2. The Blind Photographer? Do they have an assistant? Is this ‘legally blind’ (gimmick)? Do they use autofocus? What next, the blonde photographer?

3. The Market as God – I have experience with this topic: try arguing with economists over an non-observable variable, like “Wickesian natural interest rate” or “NAIRU”, and you will see that macro is metaphysics. If you can’t measure it, does it exist?

4. Rayward is the expert here (I flunked out of law school, which has a less than 5% dropout rate–everybody is there for the money and they study hard, as they know their fallback option is working as a literature major, i.e., a retail clerk) but Posner, with his insistence that ‘law is economics, everything is economics’ (a Marxian construct btw) pissed off the US Sup. Ct. On my self I have a thick Posner book “Overcoming Law” that I’ve not read but looks impressive, being a hard back. Substantive comment only understood by lawyers or law school dropouts: compare and contrast Posner with both the Lochner era “substantive due process” cases, with the ‘fact based’ Brandeis brief era, and with the post-Lochner modern era. How does Posner agree? How is he different?

5. Sagalyn on lower Manhattan: first, some dispute that Manhattan was sold for $25 of trinkets. Likely it was a misunderstanding. Second, the myth that Native Americans were abundant in North America is just that: they numbered around 250k total, at a time when in 1776 the settlers were a couple of million. And the Indians used firearms, not bow and arrows (see Rose’s excellent book, “American Rifle”, which I *have* read). Second Arlington County VA is indeed smaller as an incorporated county than Manhattan, see Wikipedia, because it is “self governing” (and the smallest in the USA).

On Medieval Europe see my comments upstream and note there were two 20th C medieval history experts in the world, one French, the other I forget, maybe British, and they quarreled, like economists, over the facts since they had different ‘frameworks’. The French take history seriously, viz. the Braudel “Annales” school. Like macro, it cannot be tested but it’s cool to associate with a school and dismiss fellow historians contemptuously with a wave of the hand (“he knows nothing, NOTHING!”).

3 Ray Lopez September 12, 2016 at 4:51 am

Some prominent medievalists – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Pirenne – H. Pirenne: controversially states the rise of Islam, not the German barbarians, causes the fall of (western) Rome; Marc Block (of the Annales history school of France), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Bloch also was a French Resistance soldier and was executed by the Nazis.

4 msgkings September 12, 2016 at 9:14 pm

Um, wasn’t Rome sacked in 476 AD and Mohammed not born until 632 AD? I can see why it’s ‘controversial’ Pirenne stated that.

5 Samsondale September 12, 2016 at 9:47 pm

I think that Pirenne argues that classical civilization persisted until early 7th century and then ended suddenly with the Islamic invasions of the Mediterranean coastal areas and piracy. Essentially, the argument is that the west was cut off from trade with the east and the African cities by the Islamic expansion and this, not the barbarians sacking Rome, led to the dark ages.

6 J. Srnec September 12, 2016 at 11:02 pm

Rome was not sacked in 476. Muhammad died in 632.

7 msgkings September 12, 2016 at 11:22 pm

You’re right, it was 410 and 570

My point isn’t diminished by this, but it is by what Samsondale said.

8 chuck martel September 12, 2016 at 11:54 pm

On 10 October, 732, the Frankish forces of Charles Martel routed the cavalry of the Umayyad Caliphate and killed its general, Abdul Rahman, near Tours. Rather than producing “dark ages” the Merovingian Franks preserved western civilization. There probably wouldn’t be a Christian of any kind, or a capitalist, left on earth if Charles Martel had failed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tours

9 Ricardo September 13, 2016 at 2:30 am

I think most historians now agree that the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410 was not the “end” of Rome. It was certainly humiliating but the Roman Empire survived and the Roman Senate still met. I think it is a bit more difficult to argue that Rome did not gradually decline and perhaps fall altogether in the decades after 410, though.

10 chuck martel September 12, 2016 at 1:34 am

There just haven’t been enough analyses of medieval Europe. We need more.

The Market As God? Maybe the market as nature. Modern society regards the democratic nation/state as God. Third world dictators are Satans.

11 derek September 12, 2016 at 7:45 am

Yes. My first thought as well. If we can find someone really really smart they can control things.

Economists don’t think the market is god. They think they are.

12 TuringTest September 12, 2016 at 1:42 am

I wonder if the “timid small bore” refers to Brian Leiter.

13 Urso September 13, 2016 at 11:36 am

Can’t be; Leiter is a member of the law faculty, not the Philosophy faculty.

14 prior_test2 September 12, 2016 at 2:58 am

‘“Were “In the Penal Colony” to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.”’ is not a good sentence. And for those wishing to read the story and see why that is not a good sentence are welcome to follow the link – http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/inthepenalcolony.htm

15 So Much For Subtlety September 12, 2016 at 6:53 am

I can hardly believe that p_t has said something that I agree with. It is a morally obtuse sentence. Only a society that only knows torture from a Grand Theft Auto game could claim any such thing. Certainly a society that jails a tiny number of mostly randomly chosen criminals on death row for 23 hours a day for decades could trivially find better parallels.

I can’t help notice p_t also does not rant about GMU, nor does he quote randomly from Wikipedia, nor does he praise Germany to the sky in this posting. Co-incidence?

16 bjk September 12, 2016 at 6:21 am

Let me guess, Greif wants to redistribute income and he can’t believe that some people aren’t satisfied with making the salary of a professor. 98% chance I’m right because of course he thinks that.

17 rayward September 12, 2016 at 7:12 am

Judge Posner is such a prolific writer that any attempt to keep up with what he writes is like drinking water from a fire hydrant. Indeed, “prolific” doesn’t capture the torrent. His essays have been written on such widely divergent topics and published in such widely divergent magazines it’s as though he can’t help himself. One economist observed that Posner writes like other people breath. And in his spare time, while not writing essays and opinions for the court, he has written about 40 books. Posner is the contemporary Jefferson. And as Jefferson had Madison, Posner had Becker. I really miss that blog. As for Posner’s evolving philosophy, I admire most someone, such as Posner, who is willing, and able, to learn something new, even if it means rejecting views once shared with like-minded colleagues who might take offense.

18 robert September 12, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Posters breadth of knowledge was best illustrated for me in an entry in the Becker-Posner blog when, in a response to comments about social obesity, he actually made a reference to the sexual phenomenon described by the acronym LUGS (“lesbians until graduation”): http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2007/08/response-to-comments-on-social-obesity–posner.html.

19 John September 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

Re #3 — wonder if the same could also be said about organized religions.

20 Jacob September 12, 2016 at 11:24 am

#3 Economists acting like theologians? As in arguing over the details and nature of a nonexistent entity?

Maybe, but many economists I know use actual data. I haven’t seen many summary statistics tables in theology papers…

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