Tag Archives: bibliophilia

Aesthetics and Ethics: Dorian Gray and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

book cover book cover Read both in the last two weeks and while they are in many ways worlds apart, the authors share an interest in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and between human connectedness and the private/public hidden/disclosed lines. Dorian Gray was good (and has enough witty-yet-profound quotable passages to fill pages), but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I have about 8 pages of notes in the back of it. It also connects up with my favorite essay in the Empathy Exams about kitsch, authenticity, meaning, aesthetics, and morality. The book is a must read. But warning: keep the tissue box nearby.

Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929

book coverI’m behind on book reviews (very, very behind) but I finally read the last pages of this today and just had to say something. And that something is: this book is fascinating and quite relevant to my own work (how great when that happens!)

The book traces the Seattle labor movement’s transformation from incredibly powerful and fairly radical leading up to the 1919 general strike to the fairly toothless business unionist AFL version of the mid to late 1920s. Frank attributes the decline to a variety of factors, but racism and sexism are front and center. As is the government’s suppression of radicals leading up to and during the Red Scare (something covered more extensively in Paul Avrich’s books on anarchism).

What was most relevant to me in all this was the consumer-based strategies Seattle labor used, first in 1919 and then again in the mid/late-1920s. In both cases, the idea was to use consumer (working class consumer) purchasing power via boycotts, “buy union” labels, etc. to advance the union cause. Now there are two super interesting things about this for me: (1) how a consumer strategy lends itself to both radical (1919) and conservative (mid-1920s) visions of labor and (2) why consumer strategies mostly failed.

On (1) — the radical version was possible only when the consumer-focus was a complement to resistance and the point of production, as part of a larger and broader vision of a working class society. In this version, labor also didn’t *just* use things like the union label and shop cards, they also engaged in super interesting experimentation with things like cooperatives, which allowed for some distance to be maintained between labor and capital (because via the cooperatives, labor could attempt to compete directly with capital as a source of goods). I’ve now purchased about a half dozen books on the use of cooperatives in US history. When do they work? Can they? Why don’t we see more of them? Who uses cooperatives today? As costs lower, why don’t we see a co-op version of Uber? Or any of the other zillion “on-demand economy” companies?

On (2) — the failure is tied to, among other things, ongoing sexism and racism. As an example, women did 80-90% of all family shopping, which meant that for consumer organizing to work, women had to be on board. But in both 1919 and the mid-1920s, women were almost wholly excluded from labor. Women who worked outside the home were almost invariably excluded from unions [married women were rejected from unions in 1919 and funds were withdrawn for female organizers in 1922] and women who worked in the home were not even considered workers at all. It’s thus no great surprise that women did not identify with the movement and thus had little motivation to spend the extra time and energy (i.e. work) necessary to seek out pro-union shops and goods. As for race, it’s a similar issue. Seattle labor was by and large unwilling to admit non-whites into membership. But that meant that non-whites had little motivation to support a white-only consumer movement.

Long story short: the book was fascinating and has left me with (literally) pages of notes and questions. So much more to know! Highly recommended!

The Man Who Was Thursday

book cover Wow. From the person who brought me two other recent successes (The Member of the Wedding and The Road to Wigan Pier) now comes this. What to say (other than, “I love you and please keep recommending books!!”):

First, G.K. Chesterton’s writing is exceptional. For most writers, there are maybe a half-dozen lines I underline in a book because they’re cool and insightful and well-crafted. Virtually this whole book should be underlined. That this guy had such insight into human behavior while also being able to express it in writing with such wit, topsy-turvy paradoxical flair, and yet simplicity is something to behold. I will absolutely read more by him in the future — and then stick the book under my pillow in the hopes his style comes to me through sleep osmosis. (it’s a thing — sleep osmosis). A few examples of awesome passages

  • “Gabriel  Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more  did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.”    [NB: I mean, come on! I want to write that!]
  • The debate between Syme (who stands in for order) against Gregory (who stands in for anarchy, which basically here just means chaos [unfortunately]). They debate where art comes from – order or chaos. Gregory retorts that if poetry comes from order, then the Underground Railway would be the most poetical thing in the world. Syme agrees. From there,
    • Gregory says: “Nonesense!” “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket  for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
    •  “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
  • “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long.”
  • “Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?” [NB: Reminds me of why No Country for Old Men was so very very creepy]
  • “Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character.”

I could go on.

Also, given how many anarchy-related booklists I’ve seen this book on, I assumed it was in some sense pro-anarchy. Let me assure you that that is not the case, though I can’t say it’s a full-fledged love letter to order either. A bit like C.S. Lewis (though upon some googling it seems more accurate to say Lewis a bit like Chesterton, just not particularly clever and topsy-turvy version of him): Chesterton was a Christian and this book can certainly be read to endorse a sort of divine orderliness that goes along with that view of the universe. But then, if that’s the view what to make of the fact that the book suggests it through a most chaotic and absurd of nightmares. Perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.

Long story short: Chesterton is brilliant and the fact that I’ve only just heard of him in the last few months is a tragedy. I want a first edition like nobody’s business!

Save The World on Your Own Time

Book CoverSaw this book on my friend’s bookshelf, he explained Fish’s argument, I thought it sounded interesting-but-not-quite-right, and so decided to give it a read.

Some of my notes:

  • Things I like: I agree that if we think the best justification for higher education is an instrumental one (e.g. it results in more productive worker bees), then it shouldn’t be a surprise that outside forces continue to criticize universities using that same premise. That said, I think Fish has to do a lot more to explain what makes education good/worth funding (esp. if one thinks, as I do, the public funding only 20-25% of public university expenses is, if it is truly to be a public university, too low). I would like to know what he’d say to an objection like the following: you’re right, Fish. Education isn’t good for the broader world in some obvious way. It’s good for those individuals who like it and/or need it to flourish. But for that very reason the state should not be funding it any more than it should be funding dance lessons or trips around the world. It’s just another way the elites have coopted the machinery of the state to further a particular conception of the good.
  • Issues:
    • The claim he bases his entire argument on doesn’t grip me at all. The claim is that “both the coherence and the value of a task depend on its being distinctive” (Chapter 2 (if I remember correctly), p 168, etc.). But is that really the case? What about the role/tasks of a friend versus the role of a romantic partner? Or the role of a parent? They all seem to have overlapping tasks and that doesn’t in any way seem to diminish the value of the tasks, or the persons filling the roles. So why must higher education have just one task and that task has to be distinct? And putting aside the role of the university, what about the role of a teacher? Or maybe a different question: maybe the role of a university is singular/special, but why not think the role of individual teachers is broader? [to be clear: true to Fish, I’m not necessarily saying I take a side here, just I think his grounding premise is unconvincing. There are certainly other sorts of premises that could do better.]
    • He says we should have no concern for the ideological makeup of a school because that’s not the business of a school. (p 146) But doesn’t the ideological makeup signal something important to the world, similar to the signaling that happens when there are no women or lesbians or blacks or alternative lifestyle(ish) people on a faculty? Perhaps this goes back something deeper I’m committed to: that each action we take can be described in a variety of different ways and, importantly, being aware of and responsive to those different descriptions and corresponding signals is what some sorts of virtue seem to require.
    • He strikes me as confused on the legitimacy of the heckler’s veto (which itself is just a form of consumer demand/discrimination).
      • Passages I noted:
        • Re: Larry Summers fiasco: “Summers offered serial apologies for his comments but accompanied them with a defense that took them back. I was, he said, just being provocative. But being provocative is not in the job description. If straight-talking, with no concern for the fall-out that may follow, is what you like to do, you may not be cut out to be a university administrator. Not ever virtue … is pertinent to every practice, and it is surely part of your responsibility to know what virtues are appropriate to the position you hold.” (92-93)
        • “There is a big difference between ‘I don’t like what that guy said, and I’m going to fire him’ and ‘I don’t like the effects brought about by what he said, and I’m going to fire him.’ The first raises constitutional issues (at least in some contexts); the second doesn’t. It’s just a judgment on job performance.” (93).
        • When discussing a controversy at the University of South Florida re: the dismissal of a prof who apparently said some unacceptable things about 9/11, he says “The reason given by the university for its action was that the hostile response to the professor’s appearance disrupted day-to-day business (this is the heckler’s veto argument, firmly rejected by a succession of Supreme Court decisions), but the real reason was that the president, rather than being true to her obligation to defend the academic enterprise, had given it over to the very political forces from which she should have protected it.” (104-05).
      • My questions
        • Is the idea that Summers’ comments on women leading to his resignation isn’t an example of a heckler’s veto because the comments on women had understandably bad consequences on his ability to do his job whereas objecting to/firing a professor who says 9/11 was [fill in the blank] might be a heckler’s veto because we want more room for debate there? Why?
        • If administrators can be reasonably fired for expressing comments that the majority finds objectionable because being provocative isn’t part of their job, why is that not true of professors? On his view, professors are just teaching people how to see the mechanics etc. of arguments, understand all the sides of arguments, etc. But nothing about his view on what makes teaching and universities special qua teaching have anything to do with being provocative. So perhaps my issue is: either you think the pressure leading to Summers’ resignation was misguided (because his views on women had no effect, you’d argue, on his role as an administrator) or you think professors also have no special right to be provocative without risking being fired because what they say makes the classroom a less good place to learn, even if (like Summers, we can hypothesize) there’s no evidence the profs views influence their teaching at all — it’s just hostile in virtue of the fact that a person in an authority position has a view that you find offensive.
        • What might all this mean for our views on the Mozilla case, where the CEO was fired after it came to light he donated money in the past to support opposition to gay marriage in CA? [article with a position here]
    • Fish seems to take the position that we can read literature and evaluate its arguments without that process having an effect on us as moral beings/on our normative commitments.  If that’s a fair characterization of Fish, I think he’s wrong. Think of The Dispossessed! Or East of Eden! Beggars in Spain! Or the Fountainhead! You can surely assign that book in an ethics class and spend class time deconstructing the arguments to see how they fare, but to act as if an average person can do that without then contemplating what that philosophy means to them as a normative guide is just untrue. A philosophy professor friend of mine said the few times she’s had students read Ayn Rand, it’s amazing how the class divides. They cannot help but respond as moral beings to the arguments, even though the class is about just understanding different moral frameworks and arguments. I don’t think that counts in favor of anything like indoctrination in the classroom but I think his understanding of human psychology is wrong and I think that wrongness may result in prescriptions for classroom behavior that aren’t ideal. Or perhaps I should say: teachers should be attuned to this psychological fact and that awareness should mean something for how we teach.
    • Relatedly, Fish says: if you write a poem glorifying x, that does not mean you endorse x. Fair enough, but I do think you bear some responsibility for the fact that your poem promotes x as good to the world. We are storytelling (and listening) beings – that is how we learn. Think of children and the stories we tell them as ways to guide and habituate them to good behavior. Maybe you don’t actually endorse x but who cares? I don’t endorse punching someone in the face but I do it anyway – what does my endorsement in these cases have to do with the bigger questions of whether I should punch the person in the face? Or, if I do, what responsibility I bear for doing it?
    • That all said, I do agree that my interpretation of the works of others does not mean I endorse the ends I think the other adopted. I can write an article explaining what I think Ishiguro endorsed in The Buried Giant and in doing some I’m trying to explain something I see happening out in the world. I may not like what’s happening, but I’m simply trying to report on it.

Worth a read.

When Things Fall Apart

book coverPicked this one up randomly while at Strand Books in NYC last weekend. My knowledge of Buddhism, let alone Eastern philosophy, remains embarrassingly non-existent and since it’s been a few months since my foray into the field, I thought I’d give it a go.

This book is actually a collection of self-contained essays/musings on a variety of different topics that all have to do with … wait for it … things falling apart. Unlike Mark Epstein’s work, this collection struck me as more directly self-help(ish) and less about explaining Buddhism, the history, the philosophy, etc.

I’ve got a few essays left, but overall I’ve enjoyed it. It definitely assumes some prior familiarity with Buddhist concepts, so not recommended for a first in this space. Still, the reflections on identity, relationships, love (for others and self), anger, etc. are all so interesting and oddly absent in Western literature on those topics, which is a true loss for the West.

The Buried Giant

book coverI just finished The Buried Giant yesterday. I read the whole thing over the course of a two week work-cation so the entire book is still fresh in my mind, which I much prefer to those times when I’m forced to read a book like this over a much longer time horizon.

So the novel. I was just on Goodreads and saw it has a 3.47/5 rating and am rather surprised. I found the book, much like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, beautiful. Beautiful in its portrayal of the love between the two main characters – Axl and Beatrice (or “princess”, as Axl tenderly calls her). And here I’m not referring to romantic beauty of a youthful sort – like that depicted in most tear-jerking romantic films, or the sort of flawless beauty depicted on magazine covers. This book lets you go along on the journeys of a handful of people who have deep, time-worn, hopeful and yet pained human hearts. A journey where you bear witness to a short of tenderness (second time I’m using that word but it’s quite a good fit) between two old lovers that feels handmade and imperfect, with both deeply buried chambers of pain and areas of bright and simple light. And all that makes the story beautiful. It also makes you think something like: ah. So that is what the best sort of love can be.

But enough of me trying (and no doubt failing) to express the feeling the book created in me. The themes it engages with deserve serious reflection. Here, I’ll only highlight some of the main ones that interested me and leave it to in-person conversations over hot chocolate to discuss in greater detail.

endpaper art by Neil GowerThrough the use of a fantastical land, shrouded in a mysterious mist that makes people (and perhaps even animals) lose access to their memories, the book creates a space for us to reflect on the nature of memory itself – its reliability, its construction, its purpose and use. It does this in the context of both our inter-personal relationships (e.g. family, romance) and as regards to the sort of collective memories of peoples (e.g., Britons versus the Saxons). Here are some thoughts I wrote down while reading:

  • what do we make of romantic love where the parties cannot remember their shared past? Beatrice seemed to think remembering quite important, that without the discreet memory of the event that led to her feelings for Axl their love was thrown into some doubt.
  • why do we care whether we can prove our love? And why do we think memory has anything to do with it?
  • the idea of “never forget” and the hope that once we remember, we’ll know the truth of the matter seems constantly challenged throughout the book. Ishiguro subtly and without warning tells the same event from different perspectives, from people with different histories and memories going into the event, and we see that there is no there there. (my favorite version of this revolved around the discussion of the buildings at the monastery) That is, there is no single true characterization of what happened, let alone what it means. But if that’s right, then I return to my earlier question – why is memory so important to our belief in the realness of love we experience today? Certainly a narrative of a life is important for our sense of self (who is the me sitting here if I am suddenly stripped of my own life story), but the characters don’t seem as preoccupied with worries about the integrity of their own selfhood. This is much more about memory’s role in our relations with others.
  • Can we apologize or ask for forgiveness for things we do not remember? Near the end of the book I was reminded of Luke 23:34. Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But when reading this book I’m not sure I understand what that sort of forgiveness looks like/ is doing. If someone does not know what they do – or, somewhat differently, if today they cannot remember what it is they once did – are you even forgiving them? And even if you are forgiving them, forgiving them for what? Is there blame to even be had there? Must there be blame before one can be forgiven? (to be clear, I had to look up the verse… and the fact it was Jesus who said it. But I did remember the line!).
  • Is it beyond us to love a person while remembering everything? Is it beyond us to love or at least accept other groups of people while remembering our histories? (and here I think of the truth and reconciliation commission as an argument that it is possible, though even there it might be that new versions of memories are formed through that process, and that somehow the reconstruction of memory, or at least its recontexualization, is necessary for forgiveness and peace.)

Oh and one more thing. The US edition I got was published by Alfred A. Knoff as a Borzoi book, printed and bound by RR Donnelley, the book jacket was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and the endpaper art was created by Neil Gower. This is unquestionably the most gorgeous modern edition I can remember laying eyes on. I very much hope to see more books published with such care in the future. A real pleasure to read something so beautiful and fitting to the story itself.

The Road to Wigan Pier

book coverIn the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice: blue pill or red pill; blue pill and he’ll wake up back in his bed, able to continue living in the fictional world that is the Matrix. Red pill and he’ll see the brutal but true real reality that exists outside the Matrix.

I was reminded of Neo’s choice – the opportunity to see the truth, even if it’s harsh – when reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In the 1930s, the Left Book Club, a socialist reading group in England, paid for Orwell to document the realities of poverty and staggering unemployment in northern England. The thought, it seems, was that such documentation would straightforwardly lead all readers to be reaffirmed in their commitment to Socialism. And, no doubt, it would plainly bring non-Socialists around. In other words, the club wanted to give people the opportunity to understand more deeply what sort of poverty and existence they were fighting against. Orwell, however, had additional plans. In addition to documenting the awful conditions in the first half of the book, the second half is perhaps best described as a critique of Socialism (or, more precisely, of Socialists) given with the hope of saving it from itself.

The second half centers on the idea that it is class prejudice that truly gets in the way of Socialism’s progress. That is, real Socialism requires reckoning with the realities of classism — a sort of prejudice that is ingrained in us in ways more fundamental than the economic prejudices (poor v. rich) Socialists usually focus on.

Orwell also provides a fantastic discussion about how the technological progress Socialism seems to require at the same time makes it harder for us to figure out what a good life even looks like. If we create ourselves and exercise our virtues though work and struggle, what happens when we live in a world where technology has made self-creating-and-enhancing work unnecessary? What’s a virtuous person look like in the Brave New World? What is it we are really trying to achieve here?Simply more leisure? But what do we do with leisure time? Easier lives? But that doesn’t seem right either, or else Brave New World wouldn’t seem so… discomforting.

Highly recommend.