Category: Books

The greatest book(s) on Africa ever written?

Yes, I am talking about the new seven-volume set Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am now about halfway through volume II, and will read the rest, albeit slowly.  The books have plenty of text and also a lot of quality photographs.  While they are easy to read, they are not actually fast going.

These books have dozens of authors, so a systematic review misses the point. But just think: do you need to read yet another largely political history of Africa, detailing the conflict in Biafra, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe?  At what I hope are your current margins, what exactly are you going to learn?

Should you instead read seven volumes about how Africans (and sometimes non-Africans) have built Africa?  Its homes.  Its businesses.  Its government buildings and non-profit centers.  Its churches and mosques.  What Africa looks like and why.  Every significant discussion is accompanied by a relevant photograph.

Is that not a more important learning?

Where else can you find a sub-chapter “Beyond Design: Finnish Architects in Senegal”?  Which are in fact the most notable vistas in the Nouakchott fish market?  Why does it seem that no building in Mauretania is next to any other building in Mauretania?  (I am reading the West Africa volume, obviously.)

Definitely recommended, a notable achievement.

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul A. Offit, You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation.  The stories and anecdotes are fun, most of all about the early history of the polio vaccine and how poorly some of the process went.  By the end of the book, however, it doesn’t add up to very much.  The underlying theme is that early innovation is fraught with risk, but Offit is unwilling to draw straightforward conclusions that we should be more tolerant of such risks.  He instead inveighs against the “disturbing show of hubris” from the recent vaccine manufacturers.  Is that really the problem right now?  (How many ways are there for the biomedical establishment to show that its “anti-expected value, anti-corporate” side can morph into subtle forms of anti-vaxx sentiment?)  He also has the annoying tendency, like many of his peers, to dismiss massive ethical issues with a single paragraph that would not withstand scrutiny in an undergraduate philosophy course.  Yes, we will always treat sins of commission as more important than sins of omission, as Offit argues.  But does he endorse this approach?  (He won’t say.)  Does he think we should vary our practices here at the margin?  (He won’t say.  Too inconvenient!)  Still, the book is informative and enjoyable enough, so I don’t regret buying it or finishing it.  But if you are looking for a “biomedical establishment punching bag,” well it is that too.

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

What I’ve been reading

1. Carole Angier, Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald.  Might Sebald be the only semi-recent writer who can hold a candle to Ferrante, Knausgaard, and Houllebecq?  This book is sprawling, and suffers somewhat from lack of access to the author’s family, but it is a true labor of love.  And Angier has a deep understanding of Sebald, and also brings out the Jewish-related themes in his work (though he was not Jewish himself).  It attempts to be a Sebaldian work itself, and even if it does not always succeed it is the kind of passionate book we need more of.  Recommended, but you have to read Sebald first, if need be start with Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants].

2. Arthur Herman, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World.  Ignore the subtitle!  There have been a number of good books on the Vikings lately, and this is perhaps the most “popular” and big picture of the lot.  The early Vikings swept through Europe in a matter of decades, mixing conquest and trade.  King Canute was pretty impressive it seems.  Specialists may pick nits, but it is very readable and seems to me to give a good overview of the role of the Vikings in European history.  This would be the one to start with.

3. Lawrence Rothfield, The Measure of Man: Liberty, Virtue, and Beauty in the Florentine Republic.  An excellent introduction to Florence, with some focus on issues of liberty and also civic leaderhip.  One should never tire of reading about this particular topic.

4. Howard W. French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World 1471 to the Second World War.  Think of this book as a retelling of some standard historical episodes, but with Africa at the center rather than as a recipient of European advances.  This is a useful reframing, and I enjoyed the read.  But perhaps by the end it was the New World that in my mind was upgraded as a more central spot for the rise of modernity?  Too frequently the relevance of Africa has to be rescued by invoking Portugal, as Sweden, Russia, and Turkey simply will not do the trick there.

New out is Diane Coyle, Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be; she is typically wise.

I am happy to see the publication of Calvin Duke’s Entrepreneurial Communities: An Alternative to the State, The Theories of Spencer Heath and Spencer MacCallum.

There is also Kyle Harper, Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History, long and comprehensive.

Medieval Coasean warfare?

Politics thus gained a new intensity after the Conquest, and yet they were also less bloody.  In the great Anglo-Norman and English battles between 1106 and 1264, as in the more general ravaging warfare, very few nobles were ever killed.  The immediate reason, as Orderic stressed, was the protection of armour, but ultimately any knight could be surrounded and disarmed.  The key point was that when this moment came he simply surrendered and was taken off for ransom.  The institution of ransom was, therefore, absolutely central to the failsafe warfare enjoyed by the nobility in this period.  Indeed the whole aim in battle was to capture, not to kill, a noble opponent.  There was here a wider context because politics too, not just warfare, was largely bloodless.  It is a remarkable fact (and one quite contrary to usual perceptions of the Middle Ages) that between Waltheof’s demise in 1076 and Gaveston’s in 1312 not a single English earl, and indeed hardly a single baron, was executed (or murdered) in England for political reasons.

That is from the excellent and highly substantive book by David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain, 1066-1284.  Wasn’t there also a JLE piece about this kind of warfare?

This experiment will be run

The New York Public Library is proud to announce a major policy shift: Beginning today, all late fines have been eliminated going forward—and all prior late fines and replacement fees have been cleared—so that everyone gets a clean slate at the Library. Research shows that fines are not effective in ensuring book returns—New Yorkers are quite reliable and responsible, clearly respecting our collections and the need for them to be available for others to borrow. But, unfortunately, fines are quite effective at preventing our most vulnerable communities from using our branches, services, and books. That is the antithesis of our mission to make knowledge and opportunity accessible to all, and needed to change. As New York grapples with the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, it is all the more urgent that we ensure the public library is open and freely available to all.

Tony
Anthony W. Marx
President, The New York Public Library

Via ZS.

16th and 17th century Protestantism (that was then, this is now)

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant culture is, despite both popular and popular scholarly persuasion, diametrically opposed to each one of the cardinal positions of the liberal tradition listed above.  Those central features of early modern evangelical culture might be quickly and crudely summarized thus: enslavement of the will, with total repudiation of works as currency in the economy of salvation, and the permanent shadow of despair; a sense of self subject to an impossibly high bar of authenticity, and forever vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy; a fear of dramatic performativity, now described as seductive, irrational, and lethal magic; repudiation of visual images, both material and psychic, as the destructive allurements of idolatry; obsessive focus on the literalist written as the source of salvation; and non-toleration for freedom of religious conscience.

The author, James Simpson, later lists some traits of this earlier [sic] ideology:

  • posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other…
  • produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancient regime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity…
  • generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion,
  • targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies…
  • actively developed surveillance systems;
  • legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time…
  • promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead…
  • legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue…In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached…The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.

That is all from the excellent book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, Belknap Press 2019, again by James Simpson.

In case you don’t know when the Reformation was, it was a long time ago.

I also loved the author’s take on how Shakespeare was in fact, for his time, a deliberate answer to the (what we now would call) Wokeism surrounding him.  Here is one of the best sentences I have read this year:

By the seventeenth century, Shakespeare began to educate audiences out of the revolutionary discipline of sincerity, by inventing partial escape routes from the schismatic and intolerable logic of early modernizing authentic, singular selfhood.

CS should like that sentence!  It is followed by a very good analysis of Measure for Measure and Winter’s Tale.

And I thank GC for carrying this book to me.

What I’ve been reading

1. Anne Enright, The Green Road.  Could Enright be the least heralded, English-language novelist in the United States today?  I also was a big fan of her last book Actress.  Her short pieces are wonderful as well.  Having won a Booker, she is hardly obscure, and yet I have never had anyone tell me that I absolutely must read Anne Enright?  Even after the very recent burst of interest in Irish writers…I will read more of her!

2. Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands.  My favorite Fermor book, the best sections were on Trinidad and Haiti, but you might have known I would think that.

3. Nadia Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907.  Back then vaccines were quite often dangerous: “Victorian public vaccinators used a lancet (a surgical instrument) to cut lines into the flesh in a scored pattern.  This was usually done in at least four different places on the arm.  Vaccine matter, also called lymph, would then be smeared into the cuts…[often] vaccinators required infants to return eight days after the procedure to allow lymph to be harvested from their blisters, or “vesicles.”  This matter was then inserted directly into the arms of waiting infants…After 1871, a fine of up to 20 shillings could be imposed on parents who refused to allow lymph to be taken from their children for use in public vaccination.”  Oddly, or perhaps not, the arguments against vaccines haven’t changed much since that time.

4. Andrew G. Farrand, The Algerian Dream: Youth and the Quest for Dignity.  There should be more books like this!  Imagine a whole book directed at…not getting someone tenure, but rather helping you understand what it is actually like to be in Algeria.  Sadly I have never been, but this is the next best thing.  As I say repeatedly, there should be more country-specific books, simply flat out “about that country” in an explanatory sense.  As for Algeria, talk about a nation in decline…

Eswar S. Prasad, The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance is a useful overview of its source material.

Anna Della Subin, Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, starts with the question of how Emperor Haile Selassie became a god to Rastafarians in Jamaica, and then broadens the question accordingly, moving on to General Douglas MacArthur, Annie Besant, and much more.  I expect we will be hearing more from this author.  At the very least she knows stuff that other people do not.

You can learn the policy views of Thomas Piketty if you read his Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021.  Oddly, or perhaps not, his socialism doesn’t seem to involve government spending any more than fifty percent of gdp, which would be a comedown for many European nations.

Kathleen Harward and Gabriella Sulbarán, The Shared Dog, for young children, teaching the economics of property rights through the tale of a dog.  From BrandyPie Books.

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

More on Ireland during World War II

A few more points:

1. Since both Germany and Britain maintained embassies in Dublin, Ireland became renowned during the war as “one of the whispering-galleries of Europe and a natural centre of for intrigue and spying of every kind.”

2. Fuel was so scarce that private motoring virtually ceased by 1943, and even public transport was problematic.

3. The War threw Ireland back into a state of almost complete cultural isolation.

4. In some odd ways the existence of Northern Ireland as ruled by Britain increased the autonomy of the rest of Ireland, which otherwise might have been commandeered for naval bases and the like, and might have been drawn into the conflict as well.

5. Ireland did receive Marshall Plan aid after the War, and this began what turned into a long-running process of integrating the Irish economy with the other economies of Western Europe.

That is all from E.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine.  This book is difficult to read for two reasons.  First, the print is too small.  Second, the author wastes no time regurgitating “the usual” from all the others book on Irish history.  On a given page, most of what is on that page one learns, and thus the book is slow to read.  Which is a sign of a very good book, though do note it is quite the time commitment.  One of the more essential books on Irish history.

Here is my earlier post on Ireland and WWII.

Ireland during World War II

The Republic of Ireland of course was neutral.  I had not known these facts:

1. Irish were allowed to emigrate to Britain to work, but with assurances they would not be conscripted.

2. Ireland engaged in heavy censorship during the War, mostly to stop people from getting the impression that the War was a moral struggle between good and evil.  The government wished to avoid pressure to enter the war, fearing the initial strong support for neutrality might fade.  This censorship even covered the telephone and telegraph, or at least tried to.

3. German broadcasts to Ireland did get through, and “There was still a tendency in Ireland at the end of the war to believe that Irish suffering was more marked than that experienced anywhere else in Europe, a narrow mindset which government policies facilitated.”

4. Erwin Schrödinger spent much of the War in Ireland.

5. The Belfast Blitz of 1941 made 100,000 homeless and damaged 53 percent of the homes in Belfast.

6. Following the death of Hitler, Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera visited the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences, an action that was much criticized at the time.

That is all from The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, a quite good book by Diarmaid Ferriter.

What I’ve been reading on Ireland

1. Susan McKay, Northern Protestants on Shifting Ground, and also Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People.  These two books straddle a journalistic and anthropological approach to what the titles indicate.  As one Protestant in the text remarked, Irish reunification would work just fine, it is the ten years getting there that everyone is afraid of.  It seems increasingly muddled what actually the Northern Irish Unionist is supposed to stand for — passionate attachment to union with an unwilling or indifferent partner, namely England?

2. David Dickson, The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation.  One of the best books on cities in recent years, and more general than the title might indicate.  I had not known that Waterford was once a rival for Dublin, or fully realized that Ireland has no significant city which is not right next to the coast.  Readable throughout, and gives you an excellent sense of how the Irish pecking order for cities evolved.  Recommended.

3. Fintan O’Toole, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.  Most educated outsiders approach Ireland through the lens of its rather prominent literary history (Joyce, Yeats, etc.).  That’s fine, but also somewhat misleading.  This book gives you an alternate tour — focused on modernism and the 20th century — through the visual arts, design, television, theatre, and more.  It should prove eyeopening to many people, and is also a wonderful book for browsing or as a guide to further study.  Harry Clarke’s stained glass “Eve of St. Agnes” work, located in Dublin and produced in the 1920s, is much more central to the Irish narrative than many people realize.

*Beautiful World, Where Are You?* — the new Sally Rooney novel

It is really good, and more subtle than one might have expected.  Imagine Ireland’s #1 left-wing writer imbibing the brew of Ross Douthat over the last few years and putting it all into fictional form, and convincingly at that.  I don’t just mean the Mass scene and the pornography discussion, it is the consistent theme running throughout the book.

The tale ends up as a true case for cultural optimism, albeit with some reasonable qualifications.

Here is a good New Yorker review by Lauren Michele Jackson.  The title of the book is excellent as well.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!