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.