Books I read in 2014:
Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin.
Breezy tale of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that focuses on the
personalities involved as well as the issues. Sort of a "Miracle at
Philadelphia" updated with more recent scholarship. She is an academic
historian but includes no citations.
My Three Years
with Eisenhower by Harry C. Butcher. Diaries
intended for publication risk self-consciousness and spin, but
Butcher's superb blow-by-blow of his three years as Eisenhower's Naval
Aide during World War II has offsetting virtues. It takes the reader
inside the laborious planning phase for the invasion of Normandy and
the nearly yearlong endgame of the war in Europe, reminding us how many
uncertainties surrounded the effort. It details the need to account not
only for military necessities but national and personal rivalries.
There is tension with the news media but nothing like what would follow
in Vietnam. All this is told in Butcher's magnificent writing voice: he
comes across as good-humored, friendly, modest and imperturbable. He
must have been a valuable guy to have around.
by Nicholas Butler. Little Wing, Wisconsin is a fictional small town
that must have a great deal of energy compressed into it. The novel
switches perspectives among four friends, one of whom stays on his
family farm while the other go elsewhere to attain great success in
their respective fields. Yet they are always drawn back to the town. At
its best this is a paean to home and friendship; at other times it's
The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
by William Deresiewicz. This incisive, thought-provoking
book is actually two books in one. Deresiewicz begins by examining the
frantic success track on which students at elite colleges and
university strive to keep up, with negative consequences to both
students and society. This is carefully done, drawing on personal
experience as well as other evidence, but is likely to be of limited
interest unless you're planning to become one of America's elite.
Eventually, though, he issues a broader critique of higher education,
where the search for meaning is subordinated to the quest for a
professional credential. Addressing students for the most part, but
parents and faculty as well, he urges a more purposeful approach to
college. My only complaint is he underplays some of the forces that
lead everyone involved (including, most recently, President Obama) to
focus exclusively on the money.
the King by Dave Eggers. Alan Clay is 54 years
old, trying to make sense of his life, to get back on the track he long
since fell off, to matter somehow, to impress someone. The absurdity
that his life has become finds its appropriate locale in Saudi Arabia,
on a futile business trip to King Abdullah Economic City (acronymed
KAEC, pronounced "Cake"). For a young man Eggers captures middle-aged
Zionism at the UN
by Eliahu Elath. Day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of Elath's
couple of months representing the Jewish Agency at the 1945 UN
Conference on International Organizations. (The conference was a key
step in the creation of the State of Israel.) Elath engaged in
conversation with a wide variety of international representatives, most
notably a number of Arabs with whom he had long-standing personal
acquaintance. He is mostly micro-level, but occasionally steps back to
give the arguments for creation of the State of Israel. But there's
enough here to show that the creation of the state by European powers
and the U.S. is not going to go down well with Arab residents of
The End of the
Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher.
Past the histrionic title, this book looks at trends in Americans'
living situations, and tries to explain them as well as suggest some
ways these trends might play out in the future. Gallagher manages to be
both the breezy magazine writer and a perceptive miner of data. Another
point in her favor is she clearly is trying to describe what's going on
rather than prescribe what should happen, supported by interviews with
a wide variety of stakeholders.
Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History: A Diary, 1928-1930;
Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodston: A Diary, 1930-1933
by Lorenzo J. Greene. These books are well-written
diaries from the early career of Greene, who became professor of
history at Lincoln University in Missouri. It's a vivid account of the
beginning of an academic career (complete with persnickety advisor),
the nature of historical research, and the conditions of black life in
the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition, Greene was an avid New
York Yankees fan (surprisingly taking no interest in the Negro Leagues)
and apparently something of a rake.
Bill Clinton in the White House by John Harris. Harris
is a journalist and pundit who distinguishes himself by his calm and
dispassion. This attitude is sustained throughout this lengthy book on
Clinton's eight year administration, providing perspective on the at
times bewildering variety of individual events. It is accessible as
well as thorough, with short topical chapters and journalistic language
that never gets too technical or wonky. If you love Clinton, or hate
Clinton, this book is probably not likely to suit you; but if you want
to get a handle on his presidency, with a perspective that wears well
ten years after publication, it should do fine.
Sacred in Contemporary Religious Architecture by Douglas R.
Hoffman. Analytical, accessible, and lavishly-photographed introduction
to thinking about the physical aspect of sacred places. Hoffman's use
of a small number of focal cases, like St. Matthew's Episcopal Church,
is particularly useful.
Ahead by Jane Jacobs. In her last book, the articulate
ur-urbanist manages to be both prophetic about America's present and
hopeful about America's future. She describes five signs of crisis as
our culture enters the post-industrial era, which must be addressed to
prevent slipping into a "dark age" like the prehistoric
hunter-gatherers, ancient Romans, or modern farm belts. (Declaring
ourselves "exceptional" is not a good sign of self-awareness. They
probably did, too.) But history has several examples of several
adaptations, too, and Americans can profit by their examples. "Is
suburban sprawl, with its murders of communities and wastes of land,
time, and energy, a sign of decay? Or is rising interest in means of
overcoming sprawl a sign of vigor and adaptability in North American
culture? Arguably, either could turn out to be true" (pp. 169-170).
Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder. Sort of an
intellectual autobiography through conversations with Snyder during the
last years of Judt's life. Judt's interests are wide-ranging, and the
conversational (as opposed to expository) format makes them
particularly hard to follow for someone not versed in all those areas.
The last chapter is an interesting commentary/update on Judt's Ill Fares the Land (2010).
Too Much Magic:
Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by
James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler denies being a "doomer," just wants us
to understand the difference between being hopeful about the future
(which he says he is) and recklessly assuming it will be like a better
version of now (which he says corporations, politicians and the news
media want to sell us). Chapters critically analyze conventional
optimism about suburban life, high technology, the financial sector,
energy and the environment, arguing that resource limitations will
sooner or later make it impossible to maintain anything close to our
current global lifestyle. His blunt style is sometimes refreshing and
Ben Lerner. A random but thoroughly enjoyable book. It
has a sort of a plot, but that seems incidental to the interior life of
the narrator. The free association in the mind of Lerner's hero makes
for somewhat denser writing than you'll find in much contemporary
fiction, but I didn't mind. In fact I sometimes reread paragraphs to
make sure I didn't miss anything good.
A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Jolly and highly readable romp
through economics, formerly known as the dismal science. Less concerned
with micro- or microeconomics than with seeing how powerful economic
paradigms like incentives, and careful use of data, can illuminate the
Never--Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Robert
Mankoff. Longtime New Yorker cartoonist, and their current cartoon
editor, manages to be both analytical and humorous. Generously
The Days of Anna
Madrigal by Armisted Maupin. 9th--9th?? yes, 9th--in Maupin's
series of novels about San Francisco is just as sweet and
life-affirming as its predecessors, even though Anna is in her 90s and
suffering the effects of a stroke, and Michael "Mouse" is in his 60s
and grumpy. Shit happens, as shit will, but it's endurable in the
community of good friends. I had no problem following this though I
haven't read the whole series, but it probably helps for the reader to
have some prior familiarity with the characters. The sexual discussions
are frank enough to make me uncomfortable, but that may be the point.
Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America,
edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. Collected reflections on local
places from a number of disciplinary perspectives, growing out of a
2011 conference at Pepperdine's public policy school. There are several
common themes, most notably the importance of place to individual
identity, and the need to protect places from the bigs (government,
planners, developers). I particularly valued Joseph A. Amato's essay on
the role of local historians, and Gary Toth's piece on the impact of
transportation policy choices on places.
The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly
Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America by Gary B.
Nash. Detailed, edgy, second look at the movement for American
independence. Nash shows how the elites throughout this period sought
to manage, and in some cases betrayed, the poor, nonwhite and women
inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric. Shameful treatment of native
populations is not overlooked.
The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin. The first three volumes of
Nin's early diary cover the years 1914-1927, beginning with her voyage
to America with her mother and brothers. The diaries are
exceptionally-written given her age at the time: main themes include
her delusional attempts to reunite her family, her struggles at school
and with the genteel poverty of her home life, and, inevitably, boys.
Through all this there is her ongoing compulsion to write, the mark of
all professional writers. (Coe does not own volume 4, which
covers the years 1927-1931.)
Nearer the Moon by Anaïs
How did the young Nin--articulate, passionate, inquisitive, and
reflective--become this irritating sexual Olympian (albeit still
articulate and passionate), pretty well oblivious to significant things
going on around her? Reading the "unexpurgated" diaries alongside those
that were published in her lifetime reveals some interesting editing
The Unwinding: An
Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Well-known
data about our present discontents and uncertain future come alive in a
representative series of personal stories, with conclusions left to the
reader. It's about the survival struggles of individuals, pitted
against corrupted institutions (economic as well as political) in a
broken system. The winners (Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey) seem
to triumph through showmanship; more touchingly, ordinary men and women
might get 19 out of 20 things right but it's the 20th that keeps them
down, and once you start to fall there's not much left to stop you.
the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the
Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer. A truly exceptional work.
Palmer manages in a relatively small book both to present a new
vocabulary for discussing and participating in politics while keeping
the language accessible and the tone passionate. Realistic about
contemporary American politics, but also hopeful and encouraging about
Capital in the
21st Century by Thomas Piketty. Piketty tries to bring
economics to the people, and for the most part he succeeds, as long as
the people are patient and willing to put in the time. Well might they
be, for Something Scary is happening to the U.S. economy, which Piketty
seeks to explain and for which he even provides a potential remedy. I
read this book over a period of several weeks, never more than a
chapter a day, and found at that rate I could digest and appreciate his
arguments, technical though they be.
Diary of My Songs
by Francis Poulenc. Not a diary of daily life but a series of
instructions, compiled over a period of nearly twenty years, on how his
songs should be sung (inspired by a woman he heard "caterwauling" on
the radio in November 1939). I don't know much of Poulenc's music but
am inspired to find some to listen to. The English language editor
promises that with certain of Poulenc's songs "Paris returns in a
flash... the stamping ground of Cocteau and Picasso, the site of Max
Jacob's slum and Marie-Blanche de Polignac's salon."
The Rise and Fall
of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. Contemporary story of a young
woman trying to figure out pieces of her life story that don't add up.
Characters are well-drawn, most memorably the Russian
immigrant-bibliophile Humphrey Ostropoler. The scrambled chronology of
the book suits the confusion in her own mind.
Lila (Gilead #3)
by Marilynne Robinson. Same setting and characters as
"Gilead" but much darker. The backstory of the preacher's wife, Lila,
is unsparingly told. By doing so Robinson also highlights the sweet and
miraculous elements of her story: it's a sort of fairy tale ending but
the edge to the story does not let us forget it's made with and by
flawed, broken people.
What Money Can't
Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel
notes the monetization of "almost everything," and argues that's
sometimes but not always good. He uses highlights from the last decade
to show market-oriented thinking breaking down social unity, eroding
civic norms and virtues, and altering how individuals relate to each
other. Even academic inquiry is subject to market power, as with
corporate-produced materials for strapped public schools. Nice chapter
on baseball, where everything seems to be up for sale.
Berlin Diary: The
Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 and End of a Berlin Diary by William L.
Shirer. Shirer, a Coe College graduate, wrote about the rise of Nazi
Germany from a front-row seat as CBS radio correspondent in Berlin. It
makes for compelling reading, with day-to-day details of life in
Germany, not to mention the rigors of early trans-Atlantic
broadcasting, and frustration with the slowness of international
response. End of a Berlin Diary
(1947) bookends the war, celebrating the Allied victory but with
considerable anxiety about the future.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell.
Collection of essays published twelve years ago which show their age.
At her best her insights are exceptional: ruminating on patriotism in
title essay, or on not having the feelings you're supposed to have at
Gettysburg or a family Thanksgiving (first two essays). There's way too
much bitterness over the outcome of the 2000 election, which we've long
since ceased to care about, and her self-deprecating humor gets
Life is a Wheel:
A Passage Across America by Bicycle by Bruce Weber. For a guy
who says he's too busy concentrating on traffic to ruminate while he's
riding, this book contains a lot of rumination. It's really three books
in one: descriptions of America and the people he meets as he rides
across it, reflections on his life and relationships personal and
professional, and (implicitly) thoughts about solitude.
Thought-provoking without a clear agenda.
Worship and Church Architecture by John F. White. 50 years old
but still valuable introduction to church design and its relevance to
worship. Focusing on floor plans, White is gentle but so persuasive the
reader can't help by the end feeling passionate about church floor
I read in 2013:
Aiken: Senate Diary, January 1972-January
1975 by George D. Aiken. An independent Republican most famous
for saying in the 1960s the US should declare victory in Vietnam and
leave. This "diary" is weekly summaries of the last three of his 34
years in the Senate. He's got crusty-but-loveable down pat. Fair,
somewhat insightful, but on the detached side given what was going on
at the time.
Introduction to Supermodernity by Marc Augé. Before he was a famous author, Babel was a
writer attached to the Soviet army in the 1920 war against Poland.
Mostly in the form of notes, which surely helped him recall events for
use in future writing, the diary is most notable for its documentation
of cruelty by the Soviets.
Tubes: A Journey
to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum.
Peter A. Carlin. scores
the effects of suburbanization (isolation of children, reliance on cars
for everything, impoverishment of public places, obesity, waste), and
predicts its demise due to scarcity of resources. His arguments, first
presented in his 1993 book The
Geography of Nowhere, aren't unique but are made with
distinctive rhetorical force viz. labels like the "fossil fuel fiesta,"
"happy motoring program," "national automobile slum," "parking
lagoons," and "nature Band-Aids."
Midland Sky by Thomas Dean.
Lower East Side
Memories: A Jewish Place in America by Hasia R. Diner. Describes
the reality of medieval life and thought, stressing the credibility of
visions, the omnipresence of religion though cynicism about clerics was
widespread, the complex tangle of political authority, and the
inability of government in large part to administer justice… chapter 8
details the era’s harshly cynical attitudes towards women… to what
extent does all this affect the seemingly legalistic argumentation of
such like Aquinas, John of Salisbury and Giles of Rome? To what extent
should it have done?
The story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, raised on a
commune in upstate New York and later (after the commune dissolves) a
photographer, educator and single father. The author manages complex
character development, maintenance of tension between idealism and
reality, and lyrical prose. I was particularly intrigued with the
character of Handy, the founder and leader of the commune...
idealistic, charismatic and yet barely able to live with himself.
Culture of Place by bell hooks.
A short, uncomplicated book of scenes from
throughout the life of Marie, raised Catholic in Brooklyn during the
1920s and 1930s. The nonlinear presentation makes you
think--what?--that she is/we are the same people throughout our lives?
that closely-related events in our lives can occur many years apart?
that we are all products of times and places and may not make sense to
people from other times and places even if we're in the same family?
The book jacket lists a website for a reading group guide, and indeed
you could chew on this little book for quite awhile.
Much of its social commentary
has dated, but its central message not only endures, it seems to have
inspired a movement. Oldenburg argued than that America was suffering
from the loss of casual gathering places, such as the neighborhood
taverns, corner stores, soda fountains and coffee shops that had
been been a key part of American life prior to World War II, and are
still found in much of Western Europe. He coined the phrase third
place, referring to the "great variety of public places that host
the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of
individuals beyond the realms of home and work" (p. 16). The loss of
third places, Oldenburg goes on, has led to higher levels of individual
stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression,
crime, marital stress and divorce, and the loss of public/community
life that engages and sustains us.
Set in a southwest Iowa town in
the 1950s, but most of the book is the inner life of the main
character, an aged pastor. Intending to leave a message for his young
son to read after he dies, he is snapped out of reflections by an
unexpected and awkward visit. Fascinating look at the inner life of one
who has learned a lot about people and still loves them.
journalist stationed in Paris chronicles the events of May and June
1940, then gets out just ahead of the advancing Nazi army. Excellent
depictions of how everyday life goes on, until it doesn't. Interesting
thought that a united Europe could have nipped Hitler's ambitions in
the bud, but the Europe depicted here was so riven on national and
class lines that it was easy pickings.
I read in 2012:
Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy
by Alan I. Abramowitz. Carefully uses statistical data to trace the
causes of contemporary political polarization, which he attributes to
polarization of views among an increasingly engaged and well-educated
public. Core differences are between white married Christians and
everybody else; like John Kenneth White, he notes that the former group
is decreasing its proportion of the American population.
History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, edited by
Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy. Invaluable reference work. The book
is organized thematically, with each author surveying a wide range of
authors on their assigned theme. Doesn't stand alone as a research
tool, but a good place to start as well as to get context for whatever
writer one is researching.
A World History
of Ancient Political Thought by Antony Black. Valuable
introductory survey of the political thought of various
traditions, though only Egypt represents Africa and there's nothing
from the Americas. The concluding chapters are brief but impressive by
way of summary and comparison.
Last Chance in
Manchuria: The Diary of Chang Kia-Ngau. The author, an
economist, describes a diplomatic mission he undertook in 1945-46 for
the Chiang Kai-shek regime negotiating over Manchuria with the Soviet
Union, who had occupied it after driving out Japan. Surprisingly dry
writing, but shot through with frustration and impending doom.
In Our Prime: The
Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen.
Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by
Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol. Thorough legislative history of
the 2010 health care law, with attention to problem definition,
political strategy and legislative maneuvering. Clearly sympathetic to
the goals of the law, but information is well-documented and overall
approach is scholarly. The last chapter on implementation challenges is
a useful guide for watching developments in the years to come.
Death Comes to
Pemberley: A Novel by P.D. James. Sequel to Pride and Prejudice penned by
gifted mystery writer. Capt. Denny, a minor character in Austen's
novel, is whacked in the woods on Darcy's estate. Sometimes contrived,
sometimes very clever, sympathetic to the original, and an entertaining
Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. 14th-century mystic, using
visions of Jesus as the basis for discussion of a wide variety of
religious topics. She takes pains to say nothing in her revelations
contradicts Church doctrine, but her work is distinctive for its use of
female images of God, of Mary as role model for humanity, and constant
references to God's joy and cheer.
In Search of
Authority: Twentieth-Century Political Thought by Henry S.
Kariel. Published in 1964, it is nonetheless a valuable survey of
early- to mid-twentieth century political philosophers. Many--like
Dewey, Maritain and Niebuhr--have much to contribute to our discussion,
or what passes for discussion in 2012.
A Diary of
Darkness: The Wartime Diary of Kiyosawa Kiyoshi. Being and
by Gabriel Marcel. Marcel (1889-1973) was an existential philosopher
and Christian apologist. This book contains a "metaphysical diary" for
the years 1928-1933, which is not a diary so much as a record of ideas.
These are not easy for the novice existentialist to grasp, but
intriguing to watch develop, and he raises some intriguing questions.
The rest of the book consists of essays and speeches defending
Christianity against secular philosophy, which gets dull.
Outsider's Campaign Diary by George B. Martin. Collection of
blog posts during and after the 2008 presidential campaign by "the Bard
of Wilmette" who is also a Coe grad. Well-written, analytical and
insightful, they give a real-time feel to what it was like to live
An Object of
Beauty: A Novel by Steve Martin.
Merchant Wife in 1910 Kyoto by Nakano Makiko. Interesting
chronicle of everyday life in Japan by a 20-year-old newlywed. Good
detail, good and informative editing, although her life was probably
more difficult than comes across here.
Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by
Elaine Pagels. Tells the story of the Book of Revelation in the
Christian Bible about as well as it can be told given very few of the
circumstances surrounding its writing are known. Best guess is that
it's an anti-Roman allegory, but it made it into the Bible because a
4th century bishop named Athanasius saw it as a useful rhetorical tool
against diversity within the Christian church.
1907-1914; Behind the Mask, 1915-1923 by Sergei Prokofiev. Two volumes of the diary of the
young Prokofiev, who was as gifted a writer as he was a composer. These
years take him from youthful conservatory student to expatriate
composer living in France away from the Bolshevik regime. His writing
voice is utterly delightful, and his portraits of his friends and
teachers are vivid. He could be a bit of a jerk at times, but was
pretty frank acknowledging this, at least to himself. I also read a
short diary from his first return to the USSR in 1927 in Soviet Diary and Other Writings.
Animal: Self-Governance and the Modern Subject by Claire E.
Rasmussen. Contemporary case studies explore the boundaries and
limitations of the concept of individual freedom. Thought-provoking
with a lot of data, argumentation is subtle.
The Last Holiday:
A Memoir by Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron wanted to be a
novelist; this book describes how he became an extremely hip musician
instead. Well-told stories with just enough ambiguity to make you
wonder what he's actually talking about.
the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong. Provocative and tough
reading. Spong argues that Jesus was a human being, not God, who was
interpreted using allegories available to Jewish people of his era.
This isn't particularly original, but Spong goes on to argue that this
viewpoint helps one to follow Jesus more than the literal approach of
traditional Christianity. Unnecessarily contentious?
The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-1945. Interesting daily
chronicle of World War II from the perspective of a high-ranking
Japanese Naval officer. He's strong on detail and clearly perceived the
progress of the war, but his rigid worldview prevented him from
thinking about what the world would be like afterwards. It's weird to
have my country consistently referred to as "the enemy" in the book.
Stan Musial by
George Vecsey. Interesting biography of a midwestern baseball icon
focusing less on baseball and more on what it was like to be Stan
America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family and Religion Ended the
Reagan Era by John Kenneth White.
The Long Night:
William L. Shirer and the Rise of the Third Reich by Steve Wick.
Biography of Shirer, focusing on his years covering the early Nazi
regime. (He left Germany in 1940.) Shirer had, as Wick says, only a
narrow window onto what the Nazis were up to, but Wick uses Shirer's
papers to show clearly what it was like to try to work or live normally
under such a regime, even as a relatively protected American. Nice
shouts out to helpful Coe staff and to the amazing diarist Victor
Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural
Heartland, 1876-1956 by Wayne A. Wiegand.
I read in 2011:
Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 by John W. Baldwin. Brief
but thorough introduction to intellectual life in the middle middle
ages. Politics relates to the secular study of law but least as
importantly to the study of theology.
Fire and Rain:
The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story
of 1970 by David Browne. Magnificently detailed, season by
season chronicle of the year in rock, focusing on the four acts in the
subtitle. Two were breaking up, two emerging. It falls short of some
broader statement on music and/or social significance, but the story
itself is well-rendered.
Diary by Tom Clarke. Clarke's 1931 reminiscences of his years
(1911-1922) working at the Daily Mail newspaper in London under its
founder, Lord Northcliffe. It's harmless reading, interesting to the
contemporary reader for its depiction of a male-dominated work world,
and of an extravagant, competitive, energetic style of journalism
mostly gone in this financially troubled era. Northcliffe wanted his
staff informed about the world, so he funded their vacations (to places
he selected); news media today are living large if they have any
foreign news to speak of, much less reporters on the beat.
The Book of
Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. Graphic novel version of the
wacky, provocative first book of the Bible. Imaginatively and
sympathetically rendered. Hit home to me how much sex there is in
The Unity of
William James's Thought by Wesley Cooper. This is not an
introduction to James's philosophy, but an engagement with others who
have written about it. Cooper argues, contra R. Gale and Stephen
Nathanson, that James's universe of "experience" included both a single
empirical reality and multiple experiences of reality. The "inside
baseball" tone of the book is reinforced by multiple references to
in-jokes in "The Philosophical Lexicon."
by Judi Dench. Judi Dench is one of the most accomplished stage and
screen actresses of our time. Her warmth and spunky personality comes
across clearly in this book of reminiscences. It's not great
literature: the anecdotes are undeveloped, and anyone wishing more
information is referred to two other books. But for those who love her,
by Nick Hornby. What an amazing, charming, insightful book. He captures
romance, and life itself, at the awkward point where it turns from
sport to serious business. He pinpoints the ambivalence of being with
even the right person. Better than the movie, for sure, and that's
saying a lot. If I'd read more books like this I'd probably be easier
on my fellow humans, and easier on myself.
That Used to Be Us
by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Truly provocative social
commentary, setting out four challenges the U.S. is not facing in the
21st century: permanent changes to the world economy wrought by (1)
globalization and (2) information technology; (3) long-term
governmental budget deficits; and (4) climate change. Our politics and
business life is driven by short-term-advantage. I need no convincing
on any of these points, as I read the book amidst the intellectual
wreckage that is the Republican presidential campaign. Their way out
includes educational reforms that focus on the needs of employers; more
candid political discourse, perhaps spurred by a well-funded third
party movement; and a willingness to compete harder than anybody else.
I ask: can we conceive of this relentless competition in a way that
includes everyone, not just those with exceptional skills or a knack
for marketing themselves?
High Fidelity by
Nick Hornby. Saw the movie, loved the movie, read the book which is
even better. Hornby absolutely nails the stage of life when choices get
serious and you can no longer live day to day.
Hogarth to Noel Coward by Paul Johnson. Profiles of 14 writers,
actors and artists who used humor in their work. He articulates not
only what they did but also the sources of their humor. I enjoyed
chapters on those I knew well (James Thurber) as well as on those about
whom I didn't know much (Toulouse-Lautrec).
Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce--complete, that is, except for
the part he burned.
Covers the period 1903-1905 when he was in his late teens. It's a
random bunch of thoughts, randomly ordered, but occasionally
interesting as the workings of a bright, sensitive teenage mind.
Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory by Edward
Lengel. Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington
project at Charlottesville, has undertaken to dispel many of the
popular but false legends about Washington that have been propounded
over the years for various reasons. He never was offered a kingship. He
never prayed in the snow at Valley Forge. He was never slapped on the
back by Gouverneur Morris on a dare from Alexander Hamilton. He didn't
make statements attributed to him advocating gun rights, veterans'
benefits, or America as a Christian nation. Lengel also shows how
Washington is re-mythologized by each generation to suit its ethos. In
that way it makes for an interesting history of the American psyche.
Washington quotes, like Lincoln quotes, are everywhere in abundance,
and probably mostly fabricated; it's testimony to how much they matter
to America and Americans.
1942-1946 by Sinclair Lewis.Particularly early on, it's a richly
detailed record of observations of life in Minnesota, including
one-to-two week driving vacations every once in a while. Lewis is not
the only old guy ever to be fascinated by tracking the weather.
Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey. Ranges in territory far beyond the
promise of the title to include a broad swath of music history and
American and British social history (with occasional side trips to
protest music centers like Jamaica and Nigeria). Each essay centers on
a particular song, but uses its story only as the basis for an essay on
the musical and social context in which it occurred. It is at once
informative, analytical, and politically committed (which occasionally
gets in the way of the other two). It's obvious politics and art are
hard to mix, and even more difficult to sustain. Lynskey leaves us
asking: is it good for music to address political issues? Does it
achieve any political good to do so? What will be the impact of
A Novel by Graham Moore. Plausible, in a geeky sort of way. A
Sherlock Holmes fanatic tries to solve a murder when the only detecting
experience he's had is reading Sherlock Holmes stories. The chapters
alternate with a fictional account of Arthur Conan Doyle himself, along
with best bud Bram Stoker, investigating the murders of three
women in 1900.
by Cynthia Ozick. Set in 1952, this novel ranges between Paris
and New York and Los Angeles. Middle-aged, long-since-divorced Bea
Nachtigall goes to Paris to search for her nephew, the son of her
estranged brother. The relationships in the book are exploitative and
strangling; no wonder young Iris Nachtigall decides at the end of the
book she will never have sex again. Still, how they think and act their
ways to liberation is interesting.
Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink.
Interesting and hopeful ideas about motivation. His argument that
people are motivated to do their best work by senses of autonomy,
mastery and purpose gives me hope that we're more than rational benefit
calculators. Still, there's the putting it into practice...
America and the
Political Philosophy of Common Sense by Scott Philip Segrest.
Interesting survey of three American thinkers from different points of
our history: John Witherspoon, James McCosh and William James. Good at
drawing connections and suggesting that common sense approaches require
balancing principle and new evidence; marred by side comments that
suggests he has a broader agenda but won't quite say what it is.
Stone Arabia: A
Novel by Dana Spiotta. A novel about two middle-aged siblings
whose charming "carefree" youth has turned into off-putting "careless."
Nik was and is a talented rock musician who never quite made it, but
who has created an elaborate alternative life history for himself
through boxes and boxes of fictitious documents. Denise had some
theatrical ambitions but now is trying to come to grips with her family
and/or reality. A thoughtful, only slightly-troubling story.
Confidence Men by
Ron Suskind. A history of the first two years of the Obama
administration, focusing on his handling of the economic crisis. It is
based on numerous interviews with people in and out of the
administration. He portrays the time as one of missed opportunities, as
caution, deference to Wall Street, and dreams of bipartisanship
squelched the soaring rhetorical vision of the campaign. Rahm Emanuel,
Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers take a lot of the blame, as does
Obama for trusting them with so much power. It's detailed and
sympathetic criticism, but I caution that just because something didn't
work out well doesn't mean a different approach would have worked out
better. Details of a hostile environment for female advisers is
My Travel Diary:
1936 by Paul Tillich. Details Tillich's five months of travel
around Europe, to which he returned from America after having been
exiled from Germany three years earlier. Surprisingly little theology,
given that he was lecturing and attending conferences throughout the
trip. Editing is very low-key, so that people he encounters and even
where he is at a particular time is not always clear.
by Sherry Turkle. Granted the plural of anecdotes is not data, but
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, very effectively marshals
anecdotes, observations and personal conclusions to raise a very
important question: What is technology doing to us as individuals, as a
society, and as a species? She resists the temptation to be either a
Luddite or sanguine, and leaves it to us to answer, with the hope that
we will be cautious and reflective in our embrace of Life 2.0.
The Price of
Vision: The Diary of Henry A.
Wallace, 1942-1946. Wallace's unabashed liberalism is a
counterpoint to the more pragmatic approaches of Presidents Roosevelt
and Truman. His warnings that an aggressive stance towards the Soviet
Union would provoke an equally aggressive reaction were prophetic, or
at least suggest the Cold War may not have been inevitable. He's not as
muddleheaded as his reputation anyhow.
The Diary of Virginia Woolf. It
me about five months to get through these five volumes, and a good
read they were. It's a remarkable record, particularly since the heart
and soul of her writing went into her books and periodical articles.
She uses it variously to record observations and conversations; make
notes about particular events; or to articulate her hopes and fears.
She writes irregularly, when she has the time, or needs a break from
some arduous labor of writing. Her writing comes out in notes, with
references that may have been clear to her but not to me. Fortunately,
her relative-by-marriage Anne Olivier Bell is a skilled editor, not too
heavy-handed but filling out what needs it. The last volume was
published in 1984.