What I’ve been reading

by on June 12, 2017 at 1:03 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History.  Things might have been different, if you believe this book.  German support for Lenin was very important, and the author sticks to the main story lines.  Hard for me to judge, but at the very least it was interesting and also clearly written.

2. Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13.  This novel builds too slowly to fit my reading style in a somewhat busy time of year, but I suspect it would be wonderful read aloud in a monotone, or as an audio book.  A young girl disappears in England, and the story records how the town processes the event, and eventually forgets about it, over the course of 13 years.  Here is one good review, it is a quality work of some originality.

3. Ken Gormley, editor, The Presidents and the Constitution.  An edited volume that is wonderful and deserving of the “best of the year” list.  The book considers how each American president in turn faced constitutional issues, and how those were resolved.  This is an excellent survey of constitutional law, and a very good refresher on American political history.  If you are a non-American, and looking to learn who all those lesser-known American presidents were, and what they did, and why and how so many of them were mediocre or worse, this is also perhaps the best place to start.

4. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.  As clear and understandable a treatment of this topic as you are likely to find, Wilson himself writes: “A major reason for the Empire’s relative scholarly neglect is that its history is so difficult to tell.  The Empire lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history: a stable heartland, a capital city, centralized political institutions and, perhaps most fundamentally, a single ‘nation.’  It was also very large and lasted a long time.  A conventional chronological approach would become unfeasibly long, or risk conveying a false sense of linear development and reduce the Empire’s history to a high political narrative.  I would like to stress instead the multiple paths, detours and dead ends of the Empire’s development…”  Relative to those obstacles this is an amazing book.

5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia.  I tried this a few years ago in English, but it clicked for me only in Spanish.  It is a series of short, interconnected philosophical meditations on those who don’t write, have given up writing, or who cannot help but write.  One of the better novels of the new century, though note it does require some basic background knowledge of figures such as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger.

1 Todd K June 12, 2017 at 1:40 am

“5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia. I tried this a few years ago in English, but it clicked for me only in Spanish.”

Out of curiosity, how is it possible that the English, a close cousin of Spanish, can be so far removed in this translation that only in the original did it click? Was the English translation *that* bad?

2 Ray Lopez June 12, 2017 at 2:15 am

I didn’t know TC reads Spanish.

3 AJ June 12, 2017 at 2:38 am

He doesn’t. He flipped through the book and mistook the sound of a nearby child repeatedly clicking a pen for insights in his mind.

4 Peter Akuleyev June 12, 2017 at 3:02 am

Spanish is not a close cousin of English. They share a lot of Latin vocabulary and derive from a common Indo-European ancestor, but the Germanic and Latin language families diverged 5000 years ago.

5 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 4:11 am

Measuring contemporary English prose to contemporary Spanish prose, you will find a greater overlap of vocabulary between Spanish and English than you would find between, for example, Anglo-Saxon and English. Also, the sentence structure is often the same in the two languages – not almost the same, but exactly the same. The formation of plurals of nouns, the lack of extensive noun declensions except in archaic phrases, and a paucity of any sophistication in the variety of verbal tenses, are common features of Spanish and English. The consonant -vowel – consonant -vowel rhythms are very similar, and lots of English words would sound great if they were Spanish words, and vice versa. It is true that a large stock of a different set of Celtic and Germanic words wandered into the languages that became contemporary Spanish, and stayed, than the set of Celtic and Latin words that wandered into the languages that became contemporary English, and stayed. If one is over-impressed by differences in vocabulary, one thinks they are very different languages, but it is not a stretch to call them close cousins.

6 dearieme June 12, 2017 at 6:55 am

Spanish is easier to learn than Italian, French, German, or Latin – at least that’s the experience in my household.

7 londenio June 12, 2017 at 6:58 am

Douglas Hofstadter (I believe in “Fluid Analogies”) makes the related point that English is closer to French than to German.

8 JonFraz June 12, 2017 at 2:09 pm

Re: Also, the sentence structure is often the same in the two languages – not almost the same, but exactly the same.

Not true, Spanish adjectives regularly precede the noun they modify (with some common exceptions) and Spanish object pronouns generally come before the verb, not after. Subject pronouns are often omitted entirely in Spanish since the verb ending shows the person. There’s no direct equivalent of our ‘s genitive in Spanish, English generally uses “to be + past participle” to form the passive while Spanish uses a reflexive verb form, Spanish uses the progressive (“to be + Present participle”) less frequently, and there’s no equivalent at all of our use of “to do” as an auxiliary (in fact that’s fairly unique to English).

9 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 11:01 pm

JonFraz – you make good points, and certainly, if by Spanish one means the Spanish of Cervantes or Galdos or Juan Ramon Jimenez (“if they give you ruled paper, write the other way”), then very few sentences will turn out to be a Spanish-English and an English-Spanish calque (calque means, I think, substituting one word for another, one for one, and remaining grammatical). But this is the 21st century – for example, La Nueva Biblia de los Hispanos is a new translation and the very first sentence – In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth – is rendered as En El Principio DIos creo el cielo e la tierra (none of the earlier translations had the same attribute). Such calques are extremely frequent in the 2017 versions of English and Spanish, I think. I am not saying that is a good thing, I am just making an observation.

10 JonFraz June 12, 2017 at 2:04 pm

A bit too far back in time. Probably closer to 3000-3500 years ago.

11 crescentsmom June 12, 2017 at 7:49 am

Tyler Cowen’s recent inclusions of Spanish books in his “What I’ve been reading” posts are really testing my notions of how different minds can be. I haven’t found much evidence online that Tyler actually speaks fluent Spanish (e.g. you can find a youtube video of an interview he gave to “Semana Economica” which was in English, not Spanish; also he wrote an entire post where he repeatedly calls the Spanish region of Galicia “Gallego”), and yet here he tells us that he understood and enjoyed a book *more* by reading it in Spanish. I read and speak Spanish, having studied it for several years, and I just cannot imagine finding a book easier to read in Spanish than in my native language. Still, I believe that Tyler believes what he is saying is true, so again, I find this claim challenges my view of how brains work.

12 josh June 12, 2017 at 8:04 am

He used to travel down to Mexico to buy corn husk paintings and eat huitlacoche before it was cool , so maybe he speaks/reads Spanish.

13 Lexical Mentat June 12, 2017 at 2:28 am

Those of you engaged by #3, might want to look to John Yoo’s Crisis and Command which is scholarly, readable and superb on the topic.

14 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 4:12 am

I await your condemnation of abortion.

15 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 4:19 am

I await your condemnation of whale hunting, beaver trapping, incarceration for use of marijuana, and the under-prosecution of assault when the victim is not affiliated with the powerful.

16 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 4:26 am

“elective abortion” “whale hunting as practiced by people instead of as practiced by giant squids”. “torture”. “incarceration for use of marijuana”. “under-prosecution of assault when the victim is not affiliated with the powerful”. See the connections? I do.

17 prior_test2 June 12, 2017 at 8:23 am

Why? None of them are something written in the Constitution as being forbidden to anyone who swears an oath to uphold the Constitution.

John Yoo remains an advocate of torture, something that is directly forbidden by the Constitution.

18 prior_test2 June 12, 2017 at 8:15 am

Why? Abortion is certainly a contentious subject, but there has always be a recognized legal framework that is considered acceptable – saving the life of the mother being one, another is the exception often made in law for rape or incest. Anything that rests on total certainty tends to be religious at its base, and different religions disagree.

Of course, if you meant forcing a woman to have an abortion against her will, well, that could be in the area of torture, certainly

19 prior_test2 June 12, 2017 at 11:25 am

One certainly hopes that calling John Yoo an active participant in torture is not beyond the pale here, including linking to the official government documents he was involved in writing to justify torture – nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB127/02.08.01.pdf

Yoo is a prime example of what happens when a government official tries their best to get around a constitutional prohibition in the service of naked power.

And let us not be confused about this subject – in the past, the United States has harshly punished those involved in using torture – http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2007/dec/18/john-mccain/history-supports-mccains-stance-on-waterboarding/

20 anonymous June 12, 2017 at 4:20 am

I condemn torture. You support abortion, whale hunting, beaver trapping , incarceration for use of marijuana, and the under-prosecution of assault when the victim is not affiliated with the powerful. Yet somehow I do not feel contempt for you, much less utter contempt. Perhaps you are simply under-informed.

21 Andreas June 12, 2017 at 5:21 am

#4 It surprised me that there isn’t even an English wikipedia page on the “two swords” doctrine of the Empire, meaning the separation of the religious and the worldly realms. As a German, I learned about it in highschool history courses. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwei-Schwerter-Theorie

22 rayward June 12, 2017 at 8:07 am

3. The history of America, the history of American presidents, has been a history of more or less democracy and belief in it. Indeed, the pendulum has been singing since the founding of the republic, beginning at Philadelphia during the Constitution Convention. Look at the online Thesaurus for synonyms and antonyms of democracy for a clue of our fraught relationship to democracy (there’s but one antonym, unfairness, but many synonyms including such words as freedom and justice). If democracy is all that’s good and decent in this world, why did the Founders fear it, and why has the pendulum continued to swing up to and including today? In the late 18th century, the fear of democracy didn’t focus on the threat from the left (“easy” money to combat the depression following the revolutionary war an collapse of trade between the former colonies and Europe) or the threat from the right (anarchists) but both. Since the second half of the 20th century (after the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and WWII), the focus has been on the threat from the left (Communist spies and Communist invasion of the US, adoption of social welfare programs for the poor and middle class that would bankrupt the US, etc.) even as (or maybe because) the right wing has steadily gained power in the US, culminating in the election of a right wing populist as president. Here’s the link to an interview of Hugo Drochon, author of a recent book about Nietzsche that is helpful to an understanding of our fraught relationship to democracy. https://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/12/20/13927678/donald-trump-brexit-nietzsche-democracy-europe-populism-hugo-drochon

23 JonFraz June 13, 2017 at 5:03 pm

To the Founders democracy meant direct democracy a law ancient Athens, not representative democracy (which they referred to as a constitutional republic).

24 Todd June 12, 2017 at 8:32 am

5. Seeing Walser’s mention reminds me of one of the best endorsements of a writer by another writer that I can recall. Susan Sontag, in an introduction to a collection of Walser’s stories, stated that if Walser had 100,000 readers, the world would be a better place.

I do enjoy Walser’s writings. To read him is to be made to be impressed by the small, sometimes quite literally.

25 charlies June 12, 2017 at 8:34 am

Vila-Matas is excellent, one of the few true originals currently writing.

Also recommend Dublinesque by him. Although you need some familiarity with Joyce & Beckett for that one.

26 AlanG June 12, 2017 at 10:39 am

#4. This looks like a very good book on the Holy Roman Empire. One of the more shocking histories I’ve read is CV Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War which pretty much decimated great swaths of the Empire. I look forward to reading this book.

27 Anon. June 12, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Bartleby & Co. didn’t click for me either. The first roadblock is that it doesn’t take its own gimmick very seriously. If you’re going to write a book consisting only of notes, then you should actually do that.

28 uair01 June 12, 2017 at 2:17 pm

I never heard about Enrique Vila-Matas, but last Saturday I picked up his book about the Documenta in Kassel, bought it, and have read almost all of it by now. It’s excellent. Especially because we have another Documenta coming up:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/23/the-illogic-of-kassel-review

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