Category: Books

Fiction and classics to read under lockdown

A number of you asked me for a list of books to read during lockdown, mostly novels and fiction (like Plato, right?).  Here is a list I drew up maybe fifteen (?) years ago, with only slight revisions since.  I feel a current list might be quite different, but actually the early list is perhaps closer to most of your tastes?  Here it is.  It starts with classics and then goes through more recent novels maybe up through 2000 or so.

My Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel

I am a fan of her two latest novels Station Eleven (about a post-pandemic world) and The Glass Hotel, and many other smart people like them too.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss , including why more white-collar criminals don’t flee before arrest, the postcard that haunts her most, the best places to hide from the Russian mob, the Canadian equivalent of the “Florida Man”, whether trophy wives are happy, how to slow down time, why she disagrees with Kafka on reading, the safest place to be during a global pandemic, how to get away with faking your own death, how influenced her writing, the permeability of moral borders, what surprised her about experiencing a real pandemic, how her background in contemporary dance makes her a better writer, adapting for a miniseries, her contrarian take on , and more.

By the way, I would fake my own death by going on a cargo vessel and bribing them to claim I fell overboard.  Here is one bit about the pandemic:

COWEN: Have people been more or less cooperative than you had thought?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: My impression — and the problem is, we don’t see people anymore — but my overall impression is they’ve been more cooperative.

Definitely in the literary community, I’ve seen a lot of people really trying to support their independent bookstores, which has always been a thing. But I think there’s been a greater awareness that if you don’t buy your books from your independent bookstore — and by the way, they do all sell online mostly — then that store might not be there when all of this ends. So I see people pulling together like that, to try to support the businesses they love. That’s been a major one.

I wish I could see people and bring back a report from actual humanity, [laughs] but that is my impression. There’s been more cooperation.

And:

COWEN: In so many postapocalyptic novels, it seems that people wander a lot. Do they wander too much? Should they just stay put?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: I had this conversation with another postapocalyptic novelist. Would everybody stop walking? Why is everybody wandering endlessly in a postapocalypse?

And:

COWEN: How good is Frozen II, if I may ask?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s pretty good.
COWEN: Pretty good?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. This is a controversial statement. I know a lot of parents who hate it, but I find it more interesting than Frozen I.

Perhaps I like The Glass Hotel a wee bit better than Station Eleven, but maybe Station Eleven is better to read first?

*Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research*

One of the best books on the history of American higher education, author Miguel Urquiola of Columbia argues for the importance of market competition in the rise and dominance of the American system.  Strongly argued and full of good evidence and stories, here is one excerpt I found of interest:

That Columbia would be among the first successful American research universities would have surprised many observers around 1850, as the school had seen real oscillations in its fortunes.  For the first decades after its creation in 1754, Columbia was a wealthy but small school.  In 1774 it had the highest collegiate endowment, but only 36 students, while Harvard and Yale had four or five times as many…in 1797 the college had eight faculty members, during most of the 1800s it had four.  In 1809, an inquiry warned that Columbia College “was fast becoming, if it has not become already, a mere Grammar School”; between 1800 and 1850, even as New York City grew, the school’s enrollment stagnated, and even in 1850 the average entering age was 15.

And this:

Among wealthy countries, the United States is unusual in letting its university sector operate as a free market.  Self-rule, free entry, and free scope are much less prevalent in Europe.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.

New books of note, which I’ve been reading parts of

Jia Lynn Yang, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965.

Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters.  How to be a better listener — get the audiobook!

Kevin Peter Hand, Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space.  A remarkably under-written and under-booked topic, I am delighted to see this book in particular.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa: a novel, about a high school teacher abusing one of his students, effective if you are wishing to read a story with this plot line.

Alev Scott and Andronike Makres, Power & the People: Five Lessons from the Birthplace of Democracy.  Due out in September, a useful look at how politics worked in ancient Athens.

Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

John Guy, Gresham’s Law: The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker.

Jennifer A. Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism.  Manufacturing is one of the topics du jour, and this book gives good background on one particular angle of that story.

As for older books, I very much liked Paul A. Offitt, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, a biography of Maurice Hilleman.  How soon we forget that in the early 1960s — when I was born — the measles virus was killing about eight million children a year.  Even in 2018 it was 140,000 deaths a year.  Also excellent is Kendall Hoyt, Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, a paradigmatic example of Progress Studies.

*Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment*

That is a recent book by Ahmet T. Kuru, published in August.  All books should have a (non-Amazon) abstract, and here it is for this book:

Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages? Ahmet T. Kuru criticizes explanations which point to Islam as the cause of this disparity, because Muslims were philosophically and socioeconomically more developed than Western Europeans between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Nor was Western colonialism the cause: Muslims had already suffered political and socioeconomic problems when colonization began. Kuru argues that Muslims had influential thinkers and merchants in their early history, when religious orthodoxy and military rule were prevalent in Europe. However, in the eleventh century, an alliance between orthodox Islamic scholars (the ulema) and military states began to emerge. This alliance gradually hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. This important study links its historical explanation to contemporary politics by showing that, to this day, the ulema–state alliance still prevents creativity and competition in Muslim countries.

I don’t really have my own view on these issues, and due to various duties and also the slowness of my on-line reading, I have read only a segment of this book.  I can report it is clearly written, to the point, and well argued, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I think I will use MR today to catch up on some “book news,” after that back again to coronavirus for a while.

That was then, this is now — Pushkin under lockdown

In autumn 1830, Pushkin was confined by a cholera outbreak to the village of Boldino, his father’s remote country estate in southeastern Russia. Desperate to return to Moscow to marry, he wrote to his fiancée: “There are five quarantine zones between here and Moscow, and I would have to spend fourteen days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in.”

Pushkin went on complaining bitterly but, with nothing else to do, he produced an astonishing number of masterpieces — short stories, short plays, lyric and narrative poems, and the last two chapters of his verse novel Eugene Onegin — in a mere three months.

Here is the full FT piece by Robert Chandler.

What should you read during the crisis?

Agnes Callard writes (NYT):

Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself…

If I have something to feel guilty about, I want to feel guilty. If something frightening is happening, I want to be afraid of it. Which is to say: When things are bad, I want to suffer and would choose to suffer and even seek out suffering.

Having just rewatched Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and then The Virgin Spring, I agree at the margin, but not altogether.  I would raise the following points:

1. In times of turmoil, we may have a stronger craving for art that “feels real.”  But such art is in fact often especially phony.  The “special effects” have to be all the better, so to speak.  None of what we are consuming is a realistic experience in the first place, so perhaps we are seeking out greater artifice and fooling ourselves about its realism even more than usual.

2. Should we be watching videos of bad events in hospitals? (originally Chinese hospitals, now NYC).  Some people are indeed doing this, but as a substitute for Jane Austen?  How about videos of people dying from Covid-19?  Videos of other respiratory diseases as the next best fill-in?

3. What about the art vs. non-art margin as a larger choice?  Don’t many people with terminal diseases (more terminal than usual that is) want to go for long walks in nature?  Doesn’t fiction exercise much less of a hold on elderly minds and matter most for teenagers and people in their early 20s and perhaps also women in their 40s-50s?  Perhaps the implication is, during a pandemic, to move away from art and literary fiction altogether.

4. The Guardian reports that sales of long, classic novels have gone up.  What do those novels have in common?  Are they a kind of comfort food?  Do we value their length?  That they are high status?  That we read them already in earlier and perhaps happier periods of life?  Are they long projects we can absorb ourselves in?  Those seem like illusion-laden motives for reading them, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

5. Perhaps we like to read especially pessimistic dystopian novels as a kind of talisman.  “Tell me the worst, let’s get dealing with the fear over with, then I will feel protected that reality will not disappoint my expectations because things won’t in fact be that bad.”  That is again another kind of illusion.  The aforementioned Guardian link suggests that sales of dystopian novels are up in general, even if they are not about plagues and pandemics.

6. Yiyun Li said: ““I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing,” she wrote.”

7. If people are bored, should they then wish to experience further boredom through their choice of fiction?  Or would a diversion from boredom be acceptable and indeed preferred?

Somehow I think in terms of a portfolio approach to aesthetics.  In harder times you need more tugs, pulls, distractions, and offsets than usual, but they should not all run in the same direction, or they will become predictable and cease to move you.

So when it comes to fiction, take some chances in your reading and toss in some of the older classics and horror and dystopia as well, and lots of fun and warmth and those walks in nature too.

So yes make a (marginal) turn in the apocalyptic direction, but in part it is to shore up your own sappiness.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighth cohort

Eibhlin Lim, Penang and University of Chicago.

“I interview founders from different industries and around the globe and share their origin stories to inspire the next generation of founders to reach for their own dreams. I previously shared these stories in Phoenix Newsletters, an online newsletter that organically grew to serve more than 7000 high school and university student subscribers primarily from Malaysia. In July 2018, I decided to self-publish and distribute a book, ‘The Phoenix Perspective’, which contains some of the most loved stories from Phoenix Newsletters, after learning that some of our biggest fans did not have constant access to the Internet and went through great lengths to read the stories. With the help of founders and organizations, I managed to bring this book to these youths and also 1000+ other youths from 20+ countries around the globe. I hope to be able to continue interviewing founders and share their origin stories, on a new website, to reach even more future founders from around the world.”

Carole Treston/Association of Nurses in AIDS Care

To jump-start a Covid-19 program to produce cheap informational videos and distribute them to their nurse network for better information and greater safety, including for patients.

Kyle Redelinghuys

“Right now, the main sources of data for Coronavirus are CSV files and websites which make the data fairly inaccessible to work with for developers. By giving easy access to this data more products can be built and more information can be shared. The API I built is an easily accessible, single source of Coronavirus data to enable developers to build new products based on COVID19 data. These products could be mobile applications, web applications and graphed data…The API exposes this data in JSON which is the easiest data format to work with for web and mobile developers. This in turn allows for quick integration in to any products. The API is also completely free to users.”

Seyone Chithrananda

17 year old from Ontario, wishes to work in San Francisco, he does computational biology with possible application to Covid-19 as well, Twitter here.  His Project De Novo uses molecular machine learning methods for novel small molecule discovery, and the grant will be used to scale up the cloud computing infrastructure and purchase chemical modelling software.

Joshua Broggi, Woolf University

To build an on-line university to bring learning programs to the entire world, including to businesses but by no means only.  His background is in philosophy and German thought, and now he is seeking to change the world.

Congratulations!

There is also another winner, but the nature of that person’s job means that reporting must be postponed.

Here are previous Emergent Ventures winners, here is an early post on the philosophy of Emergent Ventures.  You will note that the Covid-19-related work here is simply winning regular EV grants, these are not the prizes I outlined a short while ago.  I expect more prize winners to be announced fairly soon.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.

My Conversation with John McWhorter

This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days!  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.

John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?

MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?

COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.

MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.

COWEN: You think it’s just as good?

MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?

COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”

But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.

And:

COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?

MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.

Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Nicholas Hewitt, Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille.  Every city should have a good book about it, and now Marseille does.  I would say you have to already know the city, however, to appreciate this one.

2. Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959.  British Columbia had a quarantine station that late, and this is its story.  Leprosy, smallpox, and meningitis are a few of the drivers of the narrative.  It continues to startle me how much pandemics and quarantines are a kind of lost history, though they are extremely prominent in 19th century fiction.

3. Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story.  Probably the best history of the company were are going to get, at least for the earlier years of the company.  Even the jabs at the company seem perfunctory, for the most part this is quite objective as a treatment.

4. Katie Roiphe, The Power Notebooks.  Power, sex, dating, and romance, but surprisingly substantive.  Much of it is written in paragraph-long segments, and willing to be politically incorrect.  “Rebecca West: “Since men don’t love us nearly as much as we love them that leaves them a lot more spare vitality to be wonderful with.”

5. Sean Masaki Flynn, The Cure That Works: How to have the World’s Best Healthcare — at a Quarter of the Price.  A look at how to translate ideas from Singapore’s health care system into the United States.  It overreaches, but still a useful overview and analysis.

6. Paul R. Josephson, New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, The Siberian City of Science.  Imagine the Soviets trying to build a “city of science,” and meeting problem after problem.  Yet “Marchuk acknowledged that in a number of fields researchers had contributed to…the speeding up of scientific technological progress.  The physicists built synchroton radiation sources with broad applications; the biologists tacked plant and animal husbandry with vigor; the mathematicians, computer specialists, and economists were engaged in modeling and management systems.”

Anne Enright is honest about books

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I was a book-a-day child, a pretentious teenager. I read hugely in my 20s and 30s — all the good stuff, nothing very odd or esoteric. As I started getting published, I read my contemporaries in a way that was not entirely pure. Then, after I had children, I stopped. It is possible more books were written than read by me, in the years when they were small. I don’t think I am a recreational reader. I am always looking for something and I am not sure what it is. These days, I am increasingly restless. I throw books aside. I blame the internet. I blame the chair. I yearn for books not published yesterday or next week. I stick to nonfiction. And then suddenly, I can’t leave a book out of my hand. This happened most recently with “Where Reasons End,” by Yiyun Li.

Here is the full interview (NYT).

*The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life*

That is the new forthcoming book by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton, which will prove one of the best and most important works of the last few years.  Imagine following one thousand or so Dunedin New Zealanders for decades of their lives, up through age 38, and recording extensive data, and then doing the same for one thousand or so British twins through age 20, and 1500 American children, in fifteen different locales, up through age 15.  Just imagine what you would learn!

You merely have to buy this book.  In the meantime, let me give you just a few of the results.

The traits of being “undercontrolled” or “inhibited,” as a toddler are the traits most likely to persist up through age eighteen.  The undercontrolled tend to end up as danger-seeking or impulsive.  Those same individuals were most likely to have gambling disorders at age 32.  Girls with an undercontrolled temperament, however, ran into much less later danger than did the boys, including for gambling.

“Social and economic wealth accumulated by the fourth decade of life also proved to be related to childhood self-control.”  And yes that is with controls, including for childhood social class.

Being formally diagnosed with ADHD in childhood was statistically unrelated to being so diagnosed later in adult life.  It did, however, predict elevated levels of “hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulsivity” later in adulthoood.  I suspect that all reflects more poorly on the diagnoses than on the concept.  By the way, decades later three-quarters of parents did not even remember their children receiving ADHD diagnoses, or exhibiting symptoms of ADHD (!).

Parenting styles are intergenerationally transmitted for mothers but not for fathers.

For one case the authors were able to measure for DNA and still they found that parenting styles affected the development of the children (p.104).

As for the effects of day care, it seems what matters for the mother-child relationship is the quantity of time spent by the mother taking care of the child, not the quality (p.166).  For the intellectual development of the child, however, quality time matters not the quantity.  By age four and a half, however, the children who spent more time in day care were more disobedient and aggressive.  At least on average, those problems persist through the teen years.  The good news is that quality of family environment growing up still matters more than day care.

But yet there is so much more!  I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating book.  I will not here betray the results on the effects of neighborhoods on children, for instance, among numerous other topics and questions.  Or how about bullying?  Early and persistent marijuana use?  (Uh-oh)  And what do we know about polygenic scores and career success?  What can we learn about epigenetics by considering differential victimization of twins?  What in youth predicts later telomere erosion?

I would describe the writing style as “clear and factual, but not entertaining.”

You can pre-order it here, one of the books of the year and maybe more, recommended of course.