Category: Books

*The Books of Jacob*

By Olga Tokarczuk, so far I am about 300 pp. through a total of nearly 900 pp.  Might this be one of the greater novels of our time?  I liked this description:

The Books of Jacob by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from mud-bound Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It takes in esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish antisemitism and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the responses it arouses is just plain amazement at the patience and tenacity that have gone into its construction.

And:

Dense, captivating and weird, The Books of Jacob is on a different scale from either of these. It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise LostThe vividness with which it’s done is amazing.

Both passages by Marcel Theroux.  I still need to read more, but this stands a very good chance of being one of the must-read novels of the twenty-first century.  I ordered my copy pre-emptively from the UK and am very glad I did so, other Americans need to wait until February.

*The Last King of America*

This biography of King George III is a new and excellent book by Andrew Roberts, who also wrote a great biography of Napoleon. The subtitle of this one is The Misunderstood Reign of George III, and here is one excerpt:

The war was not unwinnable for the British, but they helped to make it so by refusing to change their basic military doctrine and almost anything fundamental at home, in terms of finances, commercial arrangements, conscription and tax levels.  Had Germain possessed the concentration of powers that William Pitt had enjoyed during the Seven Years War, he might have imposed his will on the whole governmental structure, but an overdevolving of competencies between ministries was rife for the first two years of the struggle.  Until 1777, for example, the responsibility for transporting men and their supplies across the Atlantic was divided between the Ordnance Board (responsible for artillery, engineers, guns and gun powder), the Navy Board (men, horses, uniforms, tents, medicine and camp equipment) and the Victualling Board (food), the Treasury being responsible for all other supplies.  This inevitably led to vast amounts of bureaucracy; Germain and Barrington even corresponded over the selection of a single doctor for Howe’s command.  This Whitehall system of waging war had been successful in the Seven Years War at a distance of over 3,000 miles across the ocean, but this was to be much harder without a single leader like Pitt; indeed it has been described as ‘an effort without parallel in the history of the world.’

I found this book especially good for giving the reader a realistic sense of the American Revolution from the British perspective.

*The Anomaly*, by Hervé Le Tellier

A very fun book, it is hard to review without giving spoilers, which would indeed spoil.  I would put it this way: if you enjoyed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this is a good next book to read.  Not of the very highest depth, but smart enough to be more than mere entertainment.  Here is the Amazon link.  It was a runaway bestseller and Goncourt Prize winner in France, here is NYT coverage.  It is the best “fun” book I have read in some time.

How to read canonical Western literature

From a reader:

You should do a post on tips for reading canonical Western literature.  Especially on whether, and to what extent, one ought to read secondary stuff like criticism, biographies, histories alongside.  Also, to reread, or to read another canonical work for the first time instead.  Tips for the average interested reader…

For your consideration, feel free to ask me anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Kosrae (one of the four states that make up the great Federated States of Micronesia!)

I am hardly the expert here, and I don’t pretend these techniques will work for you, but here are my pointers:

1. Assume from the beginning that you will need to read the work more than once, or at least read significant portions of the work more than once.  Furthermore, these multiple readings should be done back-to-back (and also over many years, btw, after all this is the canonical).  So your first reading should not in every way be super-careful, as you don’t yet know what to look for.  Treat the first reading as a warm-up for the second reading to follow.

2. The first fifty pages very often should be read twice, in a single sitting if possible, even on your “first reading.”

3. Assemble three to five guides to the main book you are reading, or significant fairly general contributions to the secondary literature.  Consult those works throughout, and imbibe an especially large dose of them between your first and second readings of the classic itself.  But you shouldn’t necessarily read those books straight through, or finish them.  They are to be pillaged for both conceptual structure and particular insights, not to be reified as books in their own right.

4. Always be asking yourself how the classic work you are reading is engaging with other classic works you might know or know of.  Starting with the Bible, but not ending there.

5. Find people to talk to about the book.

6. Read Western canonical literature.  This is actually the most important item on the list.

p.s. Don’t forget the small groups and mentors!

Addendum: Nathan Meyvis comments.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jenny Erpenbeck, Aller Tage Abend [The End of Days].  The first quarter of this book I thought it was amazing, a candidate for one of the better novels of the last thirty years.  But as the pages passed, it slipped ever more into various sentimental cliches about the tragedies of German 20th century history.  Frustrating, and I fear the author’s success will make it harder to get back on the right track?

2. T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Almost certainly the very best book on the history of Texas, and also one of the very best books on the USA and the history of the southwest, especially pre-1870.  The writing is dramatic, many segments are vivid, and the book (1980) precedes the cult of political correctness.  If you wish to read a semi-libertarian defense of how the United States obtained Texas (or do I have that backwards?), this is the place to go.  725 pp.  In 1880, Galveston was the largest settlement in Texas.  And here is a good sentence: “Because poor people settled the West, the frontier was always in debt.”

3. Peter Doggett, Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties.  A book more of substance than sensationalism, that said the substance is one of sensation.  An excellent cultural history, and it also drives home the point that things back then really were not so great, matters sexual included.  The focus is on Britain, but the coverage is global.

4. Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100.  A very long (827 pp.) and thorough look at who might be the best baseball players of all time.  Entertaining, and I have relatively few gripes.  Given that Babe Ruth was a first-rate pitcher, should he really be #2 to Willie Mays at #1?  Oscar Charleston is at #5, but I might have put Satchel Paige there.  I can’t bring myself to put Tris Speaker ahead of Mike Schmidt, and Cy Young doesn’t do as well as you might think.  Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are not canceled, but are allowed to take their rightful places in the rankings.  Recommended, for those who care.

I won’t have time to do more than browse Naomi Oreskes’s Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean.  But it appears to be an entirely serious book about the government funding of science, a drmatically understudied topic area.

*Where is My Flying Car?*

Engineer J. Storrs Hall is the author of this new Stripe Press book.  Let’s be honest: you might think this is just the usual blah blah blah, heard it a thousand times since 2011 kind of treatment.  But no, it is a detailed and nuanced and original treatment — at times obsessively so — of why various pending new physical technologies, such as nuclear power and nanotech, never really came to pass and transform our world as they might have.

Definitely recommended, worthy of the best non-fiction of the year list.  Here is the Stripe Press website for the book.

My Conversation with the excellent Ruth Scurr

A fine discourse all around, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?

SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.

I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .

Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.

Definitely recommended.  And I am again happy to recommend Ruth’s new book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows.

Best non-fiction books of 2021

What an incredible year for non-fiction books!  But let me first start with two picks from 2020, buried under the avalanche of Covid news then, and missed because I was less mobile than usual.  These books are not only good enough to make this list, but in just about any year they are good enough to be the very best book of that year:

Edward Nelson, Milton Friedman and Economic Debate in the United States, 1932–1972, volumes one and two.

Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.

Also noteworthy is Reviel Netz, Scale, Space and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture, which I hope to write more about.

Per usual, there is typically a short review behind each, though not quite always.  As for 2021 proper, here were my favorites, noting that I do not impose any quota system whatsoever.  (And yet this list is somehow more cosmopolitan than most such tallies…hmm…)  I don’t quite know how to put this, but this list is much better than the other “best books of the year” lists.  These are truly my picks, ranked roughly in the order I read them:

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China.

Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.

Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19.

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.

Ivan Gibbons, Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided.

Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, brief discussion of it here.

Roderick Matthews, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.

Alejandro Ruiz, Carla Altesor, et.al., The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital.

Tomas Mandl, Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret.

Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.

Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.

Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.

John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.

Scott Sumner, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession, and the Future of Monetary Policy.

Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.

McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics.  A remarkably high quality production, again showing McCartney’s skill as manager and entrepreneur.  Perhaps the biggest revelation is when Paul insists that if not for the Beatles he would have been an English teacher.  He also claims that he and not John was the big reader in The Beatles.  It is also striking, but not surprising, when explaining his lyrics how many times he mentions his mother, who passed away when Paul was fourteen.  There is a good David Hajdu NYT review here.

Bob Spitz, Led Zeppelin: The Biography.  They always end up being better than you think they possibly could be, and this is the best and most serious book about them.

gestalten, Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture.  Self-recommending…

Is there a “best book” of 2021?  The categories are hard to compare.  Maybe the seven volumes of Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa?  But is it fair they get seven volumes in this competition?  The McCartney?  (He took two volumes.)  The Pessoa biography?  Roderick Matthews on India?  So much to choose from!  And apologies to all those I have forgotten or neglected…

Read more!  And here is my favorite fiction of 2021 list.  And I will write an addendum to this list as we approach the very end of 2021.

My favorite fiction of 2021

Marcel Proust, The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories.  Not the very best Proust, but even so-so Proust is pretty superb.  These are fragments to be welcomed.

Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary.  At least as good as The Martian, and arguably more conceptual.

Judith Schlansky, Verzeichnis einiger Verluste [Inventory of Losses].  Conceptual German novel with roots in Borges, not as good in English.

Patrick McGrath, Last Days in Cleaver Square.  Unreliable narrator!

Karl Knausgaard, The Morning Star.  The master returns with a full-scale novel, with theology galore.

Anne Serre, The Beginners.  Short, French, about relationships, fun.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You? She is quite the conservative, don’t be put off by the left-wing rhetoric.

Mario Levrero, The Luminous Novel.  The best Uruguayan novel of all time?

Domenico Starnone, Trust.  The better of the two “Elena Ferrante” novels released in English this year?

As for retranslations of classics, I very much like the new Oedipus Rex trilogy and the new translation of the Kalevala.  I hope they are fiction!  And kudos to Sarah Ruden’s work on the Gospels, I am not sure where to put them…

Overall I thought this was an excellent year for reading fiction, much better than the few years preceding.  My number one pick here would be the Andy Weir, noting that, for purposes of your norming, I do not usually select science fiction for this designation.  (Here is my earlier CWT with Andy Weir.)

Note that I just ordered a whole new batch of appealing-sounding novels (FT link), and I will read some before year’s end, so I will give you an update when appropriate, most likely toward the very end of the calendar year.  And my non-fiction list will be coming soon.  And also note: “missing” titles from this list are very often missing on purpose!

Read more!

My Conversation with David Rubinstein

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — David has a studio in his home!  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss what makes someone good at private equity, why 20 percent performance fees have withstood the test of time, why he passed on a young Mark Zuckerberg, why SPACs probably won’t transform the IPO process, gambling on cryptocurrency, whether the Brooklyn Nets are overrated, what Wall Street and Washington get wrong about each other, why he wasn’t a good lawyer, why the rise of China is the greatest threat to American prosperity, how he would invest in Baltimore, his advice to aging philanthropists, the four standards he uses to evaluate requests for money, why we still need art museums, the unusual habit he and Tyler share, why even now he wants more money, why he’s not worried about an imbalance of ideologies on college campuses, how he prepares to interview someone, what appealed to him about owning the Magna Carta, the change he’d make to the US Constitution, why you shouldn’t obsess about finding a mentor, and more.

Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:

And:

And please note that David has a new book out, The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream.

What I’ve been reading

1. John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand.  He went from Ayn Rand to Buckminster Fuller, was deeply involved in Native American issues, saw the San Francisco scene arrive, did his share of LSD, and heralded the birth of Bay Area tech culture and also open source software, among other achievements.  Sometimes reads Marginal Revolution.  I enjoyed this book, but of course would defer to Stewart’s own judgment.

2. Bobby Duffy, The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think.  Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, and so on.  The generations just don’t differ that much from each other, at least not in ways that show up as strong effects in the data, adjusting for other demographic features.  This book is a useful corrective to numerous media discussions of these topics.  And yet…I am not entirely convinced.  That I grew up without an internet, for instance, really does seem to shape a lot of my perspectives, in a way that probably will not hold equivalently true for Generation Z.

3. Scottie Pippen, Unguarded, with Michael Arkush. “Michael Jordan was 1-9 in the playoffs before I joined the team.  In the postseason he missed, the Bulls went 6-4.  The Last Dance was Michael’s chance to tell his story.  This is mine.”  Get the picture?

4. Michael Cholbi, Grief: A Philosophical Guide.  I like the book when it veers in this direction: “Antipathy toward grief is a common theme among ancient Mediterranean philosophers.  Greek and Roman philosophers were far more hostile toward grief than we moderns, tending to view grief as, at best, a state to be tolerated or minimized.  For these philosophers, grieving others’ deaths is an unruly condition, a sign that one had become overly dependent on others and lacked the rational self-control characteristic of virtuous individuals.”  I like it less when it veers toward: “Regardless of whether there is duty to oneself to grieve, we have strong reasons of a self-regarding moral nature to grieve.  For grief presents us with a rare opportunity to relate to ourselves more fully, rationally, and lovingly.”

Michael S. Weisbach, The Economist’s Craft: An Introduction to Research, Publishing, and Professional Development.  A straight-up rather than cynical take.

Tao Jiang, Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China: Contestation of Humaneness, Justice, and Personal Freedom.  Too detailed for me to have time to read right now, but very likely an excellent book (I have browsed it), full of careful study and insight.

Useful is Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How Weapons Shaped Warfare.

Bruce J. Dickson, The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century is a good treatment of exactly what the title promises.

My Conversation with David Salle

I was honored to visit his home and painting studio, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

And excerpt:

COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?

SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.

There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.

Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.

Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

And:

COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?

SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.

Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.

There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?

It is a bit slow at the very beginning, otherwise excellent throughout.

What I’ve been reading

1. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage.  I read this as a kid, and was surprised how well my reread held up.  To the point, subtle, and with an economy of means.  I hope the new Paul Auster biography of Crane (which I will read soon) will revive interest in this classic.

2. Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah.  #2 in the Dune series, I disliked this one as a tot, but currently am marveling at its political sophistication.  Somewhat uneven, but better than its reputation.  The Wikipedia page for the book also indicates that Villeneuve is likely to do a Dune 3 based on this story.

3. Elisabeth Anderson (not the philosopher), Agents of Reform: Child Labor and the Origins of the Welfare State.  Considers the political economy of child labor reform Germany, France, the United States, and the failed case of Belgium.  Pathbreaking, a major advance on the extant literature.  The explanations are messy rather than monocausal, but often focus on the success or failure of individual policy entrepreneurs.

4. Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments.  No one seems to care about poor old Edmund Spenser, yet there seem to be quite a few good books about him.

5. Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.  The best book on Hitchcock, John Nye recommended it to me eight years ago.

There is Howard Husock, The Poor Side of Town, And Why We Need It.

And Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.

Richard A. Williams, Fixing Food: An FDA Insider Unravels the Myths and Their Solutions, covers the food regulatory side of the FDA, and:

Markus K. Brunnermeier, The Resilient Society.