Category Archives: Books

History of an Idea: Civil War

The editors of the Blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas have kindly published my essay on Nicole Loraux.

image of web page from the Blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas

The Cost of Cheap and Quick

From a review of a book about Amazon’s impact on workers:

While [William] Bodani’s experience in the steel industry was tough (evidenced by his numerous work-related injuries), he tells MacGillis: “I don’t care how dirty, how dangerous it was, how busted up I got. I loved it.” Bodani made $35 an hour with at least seven weeks of vacation while working for Beth Steel, and like many other workers in the industry, was part of a union that advocated for worker advancement. Compare this with Amazon’s drive to maximize profitability. In the same chapter, at a grim warehouse job recruitment session, workers are presented with a drug test, their starting rate of $13.75 and a sense of provisional, anonymous employment. Bodani’s job as a forklift operator includes a mere 20 minutes of “time off task” across a 10-hour shift.

From Zero to “You Must Die” in Three Seconds

How many stories do we have about people killing others over trivialities, over things, like the case of the “neighbor” who killed others over snow being thrown onto his property? A robber enters someone’s house and is shot and killed. The people inside the house weren’t threatened with harm. Only things were being taken. A driver gets cuts off by another vehicle on a highway, and then the driver whips out a gun and begins shooting. These examples are far from an “eye for an eye” biblical directive. So, how did it become acceptable to end other people’s lives when others simply disagree with us or do something that enrages us? When did it become a commonplace to end a person’s life over the theft of a big screen television?

image of film poster "Why Must I Die?"

In the example below, readers need to keep in mind that internet divisions are sometimes driven by outside forces intent on fomenting divisions at the national level for political reasons. These are cases in which neighbors are not the agents of murderous threats and hate, but that won’t likely be evident at first glance. However, it’s also likely that some participants in attacks on the internet are neighbors and fellow citizens. Below is a lament from an Oxfordshire (UK) doctor about what she has endured for describing to others what is happening with the virus at her hospital:

During the first wave, I knew the public had our backs. This time round, being an NHS doctor makes you a target. For the crime of asserting on social media that Covid is real and deadly, I earn daily abuse from a vitriolic minority. I’ve been called Hitler, Shipman, Satan and Mengele for insisting on Twitter that our hospitals aren’t empty. Last night a charming “Covid sceptic” sent me this: “You are paid to lie and a disgrace to your profession. You have clearly sold your soul and are nothing more than a child abuser destroying futures. I do not consent to your satanic ways.” A friend, herself an intensive care doctor, has just been told by another male “sceptic” that he intends to sexually abuse her until she requires one of her own ventilators. And this morning, another colleague, also female, was told: “You evil criminal lying piece of government shit. You need to be executed immediately for treason and genocide.”

Let’s Try “Going Sane”

An excerpt from Adam Phillips’s Going Sane (p. 29):

Sanity is a representative modern virtue; it bores us, and gives us pleasure only when it is mocked. Sanity may impress us, but it has never been made to seem attractive; sanity may be a good thing, but it is somehow not desirable. The terrifying thing — and it is only the terrifying thing that is ever glamorized — is madness; and, as ever, it is the frightening thing that seems real. Violence in the street is more likely to stay with us, to haunt us — to, as we now say, traumatize us — than, say, the more ordinary kindnesses of everyday life.

poster of "Sanity Falls"

George Smiley Recognizes the Current UK Government

Here’s a current account of a problem with the UK leadership, and then see how it squares with a quotation below from George Smiley provided by Steve Kroft when he interviewed John le Carré for “60 Minutes”:

Such serial failure to learn from experience comes as no surprise to anyone who has dealt with Johnson in his public roles or his private life. He postpones necessary but unpalatable decisions, like a child pushing vegetables around a plate. He likes to be liked and hates direct confrontation. He has no qualm about betraying people behind their backs, but he has a horror of upsetting them to their faces. MPs come out of meetings with Johnson happy because he has agreed with them and unaware that he agreed with their rivals in a meeting earlier the same day.

Kroft quoting Smiley:

“The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on Earth. No one will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skillfully, or find it harder to confess that he’s been a damned fool. No one acts braver when he’s frightened stiff or happier when he’s miserable. And nobody can flatter you better when he hates you than an extrovert Englishman or woman.”

John le Carré and Political Boldness

The political le Carré can be found here, in a publication in which he made himself plain. Feel his prose’s power in this sample about the second President Bush and the Iraq war:

“But will we win, Daddy?”
“Of course we will, child, and quickly, while you are still in bed.”
“But will people be killed, Daddy?”
“There will be a few Western casualties. Very few. Go to sleep.”
“And after that, will everything be normal? Nobody will strike back? The terrorists will all be dead?”
“Wait till you’re older, dear. Goodnight.”
“And is it really true that last time round Iraq lost twice as many dead as America lost in the entire Vietnam war?”
“Hush child. That’s called history.”

“Market Democracy’s” Secret Side

photo of money under mattress

In a new book about Wall Street, Walter Mattli explains that the major banks and investment firms call the shots, but do so in the least transparent way possible. In short, the markets are not driven by supply and demand, nor by equitable forces, but by subterfuge:

“Dark pools” is a term used to describe a venue where trades are made without displaying “price order or order size information.” The volume of dark trading “tripled in less than a decade to about 37 percent of all trading in 2017.” Mattli hastens to point out their potential usefulness since dark pools are intended primarily for institutional investors, whose bids might otherwise overly disrupt the market. The spread of dark pools points to two facts: first, the increasing size of investment firms large enough to handle enormous transactions internally, and two, our collective participation in the very world that Mattli is describing.

Auction with Literary Bent

Books to Nourish is holding an auction. Many interesting items up for bid, though for those who aren’t residents of the UK, you might want to verify that non-UK bids will be honored. Signed copies of books are on the block as are offers from literary agents to provide commentary on your writing.

image of Books to Nourish

Return of “The Thursday Murder Club”

Having made my way through the novel, I want to point out a passage in the acknowledgments: “I first had the idea for this book a few years ago, when I was fortunate enough to visit a retirement community full of extraordinary people with extraordinary stories.” Richard Osman’s book is a fictional tribute to those colorful grey folks who have been verbally euthanized by the government. Instead of depicting seniors in care facilities as proto-corpses, Osman conveys the energy, cleverness, tenacity, and improvisational skills of adults over 50. Osman focuses on his characters’ attunement with justice, revealing the paucity of mystery novels that dwell mainly on puzzle solving.

Osman’s characters know that at any moment one of their actions could be interpreted as an indication of decline, deterioration, foolishness. The police officer Chris feels the need to remind Elizabeth, one of the adults over 50, of her place: “You didn’t think Donna and me might have been interested at this point?” asks Chris. Elizabeth: “Firstly, Chris, it’s ‘Donna and I.’ And secondly, who knew what the bones were? We didn’t want to waste your time until we knew for sure what we were dealing with. What if we’d called you out and they were nothing but cow bones? Wouldn’t we have looked silly old fools then?” (231)

cover of Spanish version of The Thursday Murder Club book

Sometimes Your Hero is a Twit

Someone who knows something about modern music, Lester Bangs, has this to say about Jim Morrison, a figure Lester says some people think is a “modern-day god.” I cite it here as an example of Lester’s competence as a writer.

[T]he authors go on for almost four hundred pages, amassing mountains of evidence almost all of which can for most readers point to only one conclusion: that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in a bathtub in Paris.
p. 216, A Lester Bangs Reader