May 13, 2008

What makes a perfect book?

I was talking about perfect books with a friend of mine the other day. Most of you can point to a few books that sit at the tippy-top of your all-time favorites. Books that have become almost sacred for you. But what is it about these books that separates them from the merely brilliant?

My friend said something about a perfect book commandeering her brainstem, whereas a brilliant book can only take control of her cerebellum, or her bilateral parietal lobes. Or something like that. So that got me thinking: what is it about perfect books that makes them perfect, for me? (More importantly: what's the best medical analogy to convey the difference for me between the perfect and the merely great?)

I try a few promising ones: while most of my favorite books induce complex partial seizures, the perfect books cause generalized tonic-clonic convulsions with complete loss of consciousness and prolonged postictal stupor. . . . Well, that's not quite true. Jonathan Franzen's Corrections made me twitchy, but only because it sucked. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station put me in a coma for two weeks, but it's merely brilliant -- not quite perfect. This neurological analogy just won't work.

How about this: merely great books make me incontinent of urine and stool, but the perfect ones give me profuse, watery diarrhea. . . . Well, that won't work either. Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow (a perfect book) didn't do anything to my GI tract at all.

I realize that I'm going to have trouble using a medical analogy to describe what separates the handful of perfect books from the longer list of great books I've read. My problem is that each perfect book affects me differently. One makes me cry like a baby and another haunts my dreams. One is like black coffee, and another like kentucky bourbon.

The best I can do at this point is give you a list of the few books I'd call perfect. The fact that this list overlaps with my friend's helps to explain why we get along so well.

The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

What perfect books have you read? If you're kind, decent, and civilized, you'll recommend them here and not keep them secret. Don't be an idjit. Tell us.

February 09, 2008

Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?

The subtitle of Benjamin Barber's latest book hints at his dislike of consumerism. Frustrated with the ubiquitous glorfication of "the market" in our current political discourse, Barber asks the following almost rhetorical question:

"After all, when religion colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result theocracy; and when politics colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result tyranny. So why, it might be asked, when the marketplace -- with its insistent ideology of consumption and its dogged orthodoxy of spending -- colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, do we call the result liberty?" [219-220]

Continue reading "Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?" »

November 25, 2007

Just because you like China Miéville's books....

China Miéville is one of my favorite authors, but oh! His taste in other writers is atrocious.

I'm reading M. John Harrison's Viriconium, a collection of novels by a guy that Miéville says "is one of the very great writers alive today."

Well, I can't tell it from the stuff I've read so far. The first novel, The Pastel City, was pretty good, but A Storm of Wings was much too oblique, and In Viriconium committed the cardinal sin: it was boring.

Of course, I should have suspected Miéville and I wouldn't agree on other writers when he described JRR Tolkien as "a wen on the arse of fantasy."

Read this for more on Miéville and Tolkien.

October 13, 2007

EMTALA and the torture memos

Just as no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, I'm sure no one ever expected that EMTALA would be used like this....

Jack Goldsmith, now a law professor at Harvard, used to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.  He's famous for having retracted John Yoo's "torture memo" of August 1, 2002, on the grounds that it was "legally flawed, tendentious in substance and tone, and overbroad and thus largely unnecessary." [p. 151]

One of the ways that it was flawed, Goldsmith reveals in his book about his time at OLC, was its definition of torture.  According to the memo, in order for pain inflicted on a prisoner to amount to torture, it "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."  Goldsmith doesn't think this assertion had very much legal authority to back it up.  Which isn't surprising, given that the description of pain was not derived from any authority having to do with torture, but instead was lifted from EMTALA's definition of the kind of pain severe enough to constitute an "emergency medical condition" triggering a requirement for most US hospitals and doctors to provide certain kinds of medical treatment.  Goldsmith calls this use of EMTALA's language in the Torture Memo  "clumsy definitional arbitrage" that "didn't seem even in the ballpark" for definining what kinds of severe pain might amount to torture [p. 145]

Fascinating.  Creative use of authority like this is why some lawyers make the big bucks, are given top-level jobs in government, and occasionally suffer professional humiliation.

October 12, 2007

A few books

Over the many weeks that I've neglected my blog, I've read all the books that used to be on my sidebar. Now that I've got a few moments, let me tell you about some of them.
The most striking thing about Robert E. Howard's Conan stories is either a) their generally high quality, or b) the racism that Howard seems to have been unconscious of and that was probably almost unnoticed by his early readers. The bad guys in Conan stories are invariably "dark skinned" and frequently compared with monkeys, both in appearance and in behavior. Lest we try to pretend that Howard didn't have Africans in mind when he wrote about the "savages" that Conan takes out, he frequently describes their "kinky hair" and "wide nostrils." It's the sort of thing that hopefully will disgust most modern readers and leave them grateful that things have changed somewhat for the better since Howard was alive.

This racism is even more disappointing because the stories themselves are so good. They're lean and taught -- something that I wish more of today's fantasy authors might try to emulate more often. Howard never forgets that his readers want action. He gives them plenty of that, with just enough characterization and plotting to make the action make sense.

Atul Gawande is one of my role models, demonstrating that a doc can be a clinician and an informed, thoughtful citizen and writer at the same time. (For a funny look at what you often get with health care providers, read this post by another good writer and ER resident.) Better is a collection of several separate essays that are loosely connected by the theme of improvement -- getting better. There's a great discussion of how one hospital has cut its rate of nosocomial infections by emphasizing handwashing, and another discussion of what kinds of chaperoning to use when you're examining a patient. There are no overall lessons, but the individual essays are well-written and fun to read.

Richard Epstein's Overdose is classic Epstein that feels just a little too classic for me. It isn't that Epstein's writing isn't clear or his arguments weak. It's just that, well, they're so damned predictable. You suspect before you even read the book that the pharmaceutical companies will end up being blameless victims of nefarious collectivist schemes, and when you read that yes, they've been unfairly victimized by collectivists, you sigh and wonder why you had to do all that reading to get there.

Epstein's bigger mistake is that he sings to his choir a bit too much, instead of presuming that his reader will disagree with him. Perhaps he's been thinking like this for so long, he's lost the ability to truly imagine someone who say, "yes, but why shouldn't we trade off some amount of innovation for greater access to the drugs that have already been developed?"

August 01, 2007

All caught up now

I'm finally caught up on my Harry Potter -- all the books and all the movies. The Dumbledore - Voldemort duel is a highlight of Harry 5.

Oh, by the way: this winter fans of Iorek Byrnison will finally be able to see the Armored Bear on the big screen.

May 26, 2007

Flight of the Nighthawks

Busy? Want to read a novel that will reliably give you what you expect? Are you willing to trade this reliability for the possibility of a sublime experience, which you don't have time to appreciate anyway? If so, then Flight of the Nighthawks is for you.

Raymond E. Feist is, along with Robert Jordan, the most consistent fantasy author in the business. Unlike other prolific writers in the genre who can write the occasional ass-kicker but who can also shaft us with the occasional dud (Robin Hobb comes to mind), Feist is Mr. Old Reliable. He doesn't write anything as good as Miéville's Perdido Street Station or Martin's Storm of Swords, or anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, but he's never betrayed us with something as bad as Hobb's Shaman's Crossing. (Couldn't even finish that one.) Nighthawks is solid and reliable swords and sorcery -- nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Where Feist has the advantage over Jordan (and now Martin!) is mostly in his wise decision to write his own version of the Wheel of Time without explicitly writing any series that's longer than a standard trilogy. True, almost all of Feist's books are set in Midkemia, and all of them follow the sorcerer Pug and his various comrades and flunkies, but hey -- at least they don't say "Wheel of Time, book Seven." Maybe it's just a marketing difference, but it's a difference that makes a difference. I never want to read any Book Tens except if it's part of the history of Middle Earth.

May 25, 2007

Mark Helprin: Seventy years after I'm dead is not enough

If I were still in law school (and not post-call on the trauma service), this article from the novelist and occasional current-affairs commentator Mark Helprin would have provoked a long post many days ago: A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?

Helprin makes the provocative, because so seldom-heard, argument that copyright terms extending to 70 years after the death of the author just aren't long enough:

Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw. Would it not be just and fair for those who try to extract a living from the uncertain arts of writing and composing to be freed from a form of confiscation not visited upon anyone else? The answer is obvious, and transcends even justice. No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property, because no good case can exist for treating with special disfavor the work of the spirit and the mind.
This argument deserves a reasoned refutation instead of (in addition to?) a dismissive guffaw. Helprin has wandered off into cuckoo-land here, and if I weren't so sleep-deprived, I'd tell you now why I think so.

But alas, wisdom demands that I grab a beer, curl up in bed with my book for half an hour, and go to sleep. I'm back in the hospital again tomorrow....

March 03, 2007

A few more good books

I read this book last summer, sitting outside of the Istria Cafe under the Metra tracks and trying to chase the occasional hornet away from my cranberry scone. Mark Helprin is a brilliant fantasy writer whom the publishing industry hasn't consigned to the fantasy/sci-fi ghetto. Go through the reasons why this might be the case, and you'll convince yourself that the difference between the "fantasy" and "literature" sections in the bookstore is a marketing distinction that has almost nothing to do with the content of the stories. Helprin comments on modern politics? Well, so does China Miéville (though usually from the other side of the political spectrum). Helprin sets his fantasies in real-world locales? So do Guy Gavriel Kay and Charles deLint.

I'd read Helprin's Winter's Tale several years ago and loved it -- I still can't forget the white horse walking through the snow in Manhattan. After Freddy and Fredericka, I find it hard to think about dentists without thinking about Prince Charles. Yep, it's a strange, funny, and touching book that made me laugh and cry both.

King Rat is the first novel that Miéville published and the fourth one that I've read. Compared with Perdido Street Station or the other novels set in Bas-Lag, the characters and settings in King Rat are commonplace. The city is regular old London, and the characters are mostly run-of-the-mill human. Sure, there are a few human/animal demigods running around, but not really any more so than in a typical Neil Gaiman novel. The background music that most of the characters either play or at least appreciate is drum and bass, which I didn't know existed until I read this book. Now I'm damned curious what it sounds like. Thanks, China Miéville!

February 26, 2007

China Miéville and Guy Gavriel Kay

I just picked up China Miéville's new book. It'll be good to see how the author of Perdido Street Station does young adult fiction.

I also now own Guy Gavriel Kay's new book. You would thank me if I beat you over the head until you agreed to read Guy Gavriel Kay: "In the ancient baptistry, the pair are surprised by a mysterious, scarred man wielding a knife who warns that they've 'blundered into a corner of a very old story. It is no place for children.'"

December 18, 2006

A few good books

One reason I haven't posted much here over the past few weeks (months?) is that I've been using my all-too-rare free time for reading, and not for blogging. So even though my blog has suffered, I've been doing OK, mostly because the books I've been reading have been good ones. Lucky me.

The first one I'd recommend is Look Homeward, America by Bill Kauffman. A friend of mine recommended it because it's got a good chapter about Wendell Berry. I read the Berry chapter and then read the rest. Ever heard of Dorothy Day or Carolyn Chute? Well, after you read Kauffman's book you'll be big fans of both. Especially if your political tastes are anything like mine. Despite his opposition to modern mass entertainment, Kauffman is a master of the pop-culture reference. I managed to catch a few of them and thought they were funny as hell, but I'm sure I missed the majority of them entirely.

Speaking of Wendell Berry, I can also recommend Andy Catlett: Early Travels. It's the first novel from Berry that I've read, and it's one of the simplest novels ever. As an old man, Andy Catlett narrates the story of his trip on a bus when he was only nine from his home to a small town about ten miles away where some of his relatives live. You can't get any more simple than that. A typical passage goes like this:

"On the kitchen table were two quart jars of green beans, a quart jar of applesauce, and pint jar of what I knew to be the wild black raspberries that abounded in the thickets and woods edges of that time. I thought, "Pie!"
"Are you going to make a pie?" I asked.
"Hmh!" she said. "Maybe. Would you like to have a pie?"
And I said, with my best manners, "Yes, mam."
This book is full of the joy of a nine-year-old, but it's also full of more complex reflections by the elderly narrator about thorny issues like race and about what we've gained and lost since 1943. It's simple, not simplistic.

September 19, 2006

Fresh Tolkien book

Houghton Mifflin will publish a new work by JRR Tolkien this spring.

I'm chomping at the bit, tugging at the leash, drooling down my shirt. I'm not worried that Tolkien never finished the story during his lifetime -- if Christopher Tolkien does as good a job editing "The Children of Hurin" as he's done with the multivolume history of the Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales, this new book is going to be **amazing**.

August 30, 2006

Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

August 22, 2006

Cosmopolitanism's limits

Last winter when I was in Hyde Park to interview for a residency spot, I stopped in at 57th Street Books and found two books on the front table. One was Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. The other was by Italian politician Marcello Pera and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.

I thought it would be fun to read them together. One offered "cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a globalized "world of strangers." The other saw a threat to "tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions" in Europe's "apostasy toward . . . the spiritual roots of European civilization" as George Weigel's preface puts it. Nonviolent coexistence demands some degree of toleration, and toleration seems to demand that we embrace some kind of relativism. Could one really argue for a renewed commitment to religious values on the grounds that this apparent absolutism is more conducive to toleration than some form of relativism? This post addresses Appiah's book; I'lll talk about Pera and Ratzinger separately.

Anthony Appiah: Virginia Postrel on steroids

I admit that the comparison might not be entirely fair, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to call Kwame Anthony Appiah the thinking man's Virginia Postrel (or perhaps Thomas Friedman, if you prefer).

Appiah argues that we can't be cosmopolitans until we give substantial weight to our shared humanity, relative to the weight we give to our shared identity with our co-religionists, countrymen, or ethnic group. The "golden rule of cosmopolitanism" according to Appiah is something like the Roman playwright Terence's "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." When it comes to culture, we ought to recognize the empirical reality that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Every culture has been "contaminated" by others, whether by trade, migration, or Hollywood movies. "We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron."

This does not mean that there are no differences among peoples. In fact, the threat of cutural imperialism shouldn't be overstated, because even when the same television show is seen worldwide, different peoples have different reactions to it. Even when Coke is marketed around the world, local people often prefer local beverages when they're available. "And whatever loss of difference there has been, [people] are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions."

But if homogenization isn't a problem, why do so many people think that it is? According to Appiah, it's because they don't like change. "So why do people in [the world's villages] sometimes feel that their identity is threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don't like it."

Well, duh. It isn't that people don't like change per se; they don't like change that threatens their identity. The problem with all of this breezy talk about sources of conflict that, illusory or not, lead people to kill each other in mass numbers, is the same problem that Postrel and Friedman have also failed to solve. Appiah never takes the proper measure of the non-cosmopolitan's objections to our modern circumstances. You can see this when he equates threats to a person's identity with a mere distaste for change in general. These are clearly problems of a different order of magnitude. We can't conjure away the problem Postrel-style by describing millions of people who feel the need to kill or be killed in a war against modernity as merely stubborn.

Appiah also sets up an all-too common straw man to represent those who argue that elements of our tradition should be preserved. He speaks as if all these people simply want to foreclose choice, and force everyone to be small farmers. For instance (p. 103-4):

Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his [family] would work it with him. If extra hands were needed in the harvest season, he would pay the migrant workers who came from the north. . . . Nowadays, everything has changed. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the trasportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded your nephews and nieces to stay. Now they have the right to leave; in any case, you many not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family has gone; and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as some of the American family farmers whose lands are being accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture; and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is simply modern superstition thoughtlessly repeated. The economy (conceived of as a natural "force" for which we are not responsible) has made it impossible to pursue a way of life that has sustained many generations of people. Despite the economic impossibility of pursuing the old ways of life, the abandonment of these old ways and the adoption of the modern ways is glorified as a "choice" that young people freely make. Appiah doesn't recognize the contradiction, perhaps because he's so eager to condemn those who would "force" their children to remain on the farm as enemies of free choice. But who are these people? We here a lot from Anthony Appiah and Virginia Postrel about these family-farming tyrants, but we're never told who they are. It's just assumed that they exist. But I haven't met one, or read their articles or books, or seen any of the draconian stay-on-the-farm laws that they're trying to pass.

I suspect that, if we were really more concerned about "freedom" than about defending modernity as such, we'd be willing to acknowledge that much of what young people do when they leave the family farm is done because there isn't any other real choice to make. Economic realities, to the extent that they make the family farm unprofitable, make moving to the cities a necessity and not a choice. Appiah (and Friedman) can argue that the family farm doesn't make economic sense, but they can't have it both ways and simultaneously claim that the abandonment of the farms is a glorious example of personal freedom.

The fact is that the modern economic realities that are condemning family farms in favor of global agribusiness are not natural events. We subsidize global agribusiness, not family farms. Much less do we subsidize "thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity," whatever that might mean.

Appiah does discuss more serious sources of conflict than changing hairstyles and new slang. He points out that the conflict in the United States between people who favor and who oppose legal abortion is not a conflict over fundamentally incompatible values. Instead, it's a conflict over how the shared values of life and freedom ought to be applied in a particular case. The conflict between observant Muslims and observant Jews wouldn't be as fierce if they didn't both share similar beliefs about the importance of Jerusalem. The resistance to British colonization of Ghana was fiercest among the most Westernized Ghanaians, who shared with the British the values of nationalism and self-determination.

Appiah comes close to acknowledging that when people disagree like this, reason will often fail. These differences don't arise because people aren't being reasonable. There are going to be winners and losers, and the losers will be very angry, and they may respond with violence. But I suspect that to just say this and stop would be to admit the defeat of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah is unwilling to do this explicitly. Instead, he turns quickly away from a discussion of winners and losers to a discussion of habit. He acknowledges the limits of reason: "I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest [why not simply "most intelligent"?] people are not easily shifted by reason alone. . . " The point of conversation and cultural interchange isn't to arrive at a consensus about values. "...[I]t's enough that it helps people get used to one another." End of chapter.

Sure, living with someone different teaches us about them and makes them less unfamiliar. But if Appiah wants to suggest also that it makes us more tolerant of them, he leaves it as merely a suggestion. Who wants to kill Iraqi Sunnis? Iraqi Shiites, not Alabama Baptists. Who routinely killed Irish Catholics? Irish Protestants, not Buddists in Japan. Will cosmopolitan cultural interchange lead to a safer and less violent "world of strangers?" Appiah doesn't argue convincingly that it will.

August 20, 2006

Stephen King's Lord of the Rings

GunslingerA few months ago when I was still in law school (how long ago that seems already!) I started in on Stephen King's version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Ok, so I'm stretching things a bit -- the Dark Tower isn't anything like LoTR. It's certainly not one of those faux-Tolkien fantasy trilogies that we usually get when an author cites LoTR as an inspiration for their own work, as King has here. King says in his preface that he knew he had to write his own story, not Tolkien's, and after twenty three years or so from beginning to end, he's given us the Dark Tower.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

It's a strange and trippy story that's turned me into a Stephen King fan. The reviews I've seen are decidedly mixed, primarily because readers don't agree about the quality of the ending or about the wisdom of including Stephen King as one of the characters in the story. On both questions, I'm one of those readers who think King got it right. The ending is subtle, dismaying, hopeful, and aggravating all at once. I don't think it's something that could have been written by a young author -- it's just too trippy. Contemplative, even. After reading this ending, I know that I'll have to reread all these books again, sometime. Maybe something will be different the next time through. . . .

As for King-the-character, it won't give anything away to say that Stephen King the author uses this opportunity to talk about the creative process. I suppose if you have no interest whatsoever in how a writer dreams up the funky shit in his books, you might be put off by the appearance of the King character here. Especially because he's not a particularly noble or even likeable guy. But I think that's to Stephen King's credit -- he resists the temptation to make himself the hero of his own book. Perhaps he overstates the importance of the author to a story, but there's room for a juicy argument here, and it's why you should read the series. If Stephen had died when that minivan ran him over in Maine, Roland and Eddy and Susannah and Oy would have died too. If Tolkien had died early, Aragorn would never have returned as the King. No David Lynch, no people like Frank in this world.

In matters of creativity, the artist matters. Which is why I'm glad Phillip Pullman's still alive.

February 12, 2006

Christopher Paolini connects the dots

Eragon imageI read Eragon and Eldest over this past winter break, the first two novels in a planned fantasy trilogy by teenage author Christopher Paolini. These books have been a publishing sensation, and the movie version of Eragon is already in post-production with John Malkovich cast as the evil King Galbatorix. Fortunately, I didn't know any of this when I read the books. My review is untainted by preconceived notions.

Don't misunderstand me -- I'm not saying these books are the best thing to hit fantasy literature since The Deed of Paksenarrion, but they are solid. The narrative flows smoothly and the plot is compelling (more so in Eldest than in Eragon). Although the story gets off to a slow start, by the end of the second book you can see the outlines of what promises to be a really ass-kicking Big Battle in the third book.

eldest imageMost of the story concerns Eragon, a (what else?) teenage kid who finds an egg that hatches into a blue dragon named Saphira. Eragon and Saphira bond emotionally and telepathicially, are attacked by hideous monsters of evil, and flee their small farming village at the base of the mountains in the company of an old magician named Brom. Soon we learn that the oppressive King of the realm, Galbatorix, has reason to fear (and therefore to kill) Eragon and Saphira. The stage is set for adventure.

Eragon is a likeable kid, sure, but he's not particularly interesting. Then of course, neither is Harry Potter. Just like in JK Rowling's books, the most interesting characters are part of the supporting cast (think Hermione and Professor Snape). Saphira the dragon can be a snarky, narcissistic, fire-breathing little bitch, which is why she's so cute. Eragon's friend Roran's separate adventures are in many ways more compelling than Eragon's own.

One criticism of these books that I'm sure has been leveled before is that they're too derivative -- of JRR Tolkien, of Anne McCaffrey, of Raymond E. Feist. It's true that most of the elements of Paolini's story can be found, somewhere, in these authors' books. But then again, you can say that about almost all fantasy authors (China Miéville excepted). At least Paolini writes well, which is something many fantasy authors can't do.

One influential author whose influence is almost invisible in Paolini's story is JK Rowling. Paolini's debt to Rowling is not as much in the story itself as much as in the decision by Alfred E. Knopf to publish it. Think about it: before Harry Potter, how many publishers would have tried to market books this thick to young readers? Not many. Harry Potter made everyone realize that small people can love thick books, and Paolini is one of the beneficiaries. If you agree with me on the merits of the work, so are his readers.

November 08, 2005

It's November 8 -- guess what that means...

If you said "George R.R. Martin's A Feast For Crows is released today", you're right!

I bought my copy from Powells, and I can't wait to read it.

September 18, 2005

A short Sunday blog post

Anthony Rickey is reading (or at least claims to be reading) Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys ("trickster god chic"). I'm curious to hear what he thinks of it, and I hope he'll tell us about it on his blog when he's finished.

June 05, 2005

It's done!

George R.R. Martin is done!

He's got some yadda yadda about splitting books in half and pasting them together with Elmer's, but I don't care all that much.

A Feast For Crows is going into production. Hallelujah!

May 02, 2005

May 2

Happy birthday today to my brother -- I hope it's a good one!

Btw, I'm almost done with Salvatore's Dark Elf Trilogy. You're right; he writes hand-to-hand combat better than anyone else I've read. The first book was actually pretty bad, but I'm liking the last two thirds of the trilogy, everything after Drizzt goes to Blingdenstone (ack! those names!) with the deep gnome Belwar.

April 06, 2005

I am Jon Snow

Find out which George R.R. Martin character you are.

(Via Ned Stark... uh, Prof. Bainbridge.)

February 27, 2005

The Deed of Paksenarrion

I've finished my 8th book of the year, although I'm still pretending not to count them. This one should really count as three books -- since it orginally was three books -- but the publisher has issued it as a single 1024-page book. I'll count it as just one.

This fantasy trilogy (packed into one volume) suffers from so many flaws that it should never have seen the light of day. Sane publishers usually refuse to publish stories about female warriors who aren't interested in sex. At all. Especially when the author never explains why. Paksenarrion, the sheepfarmer's daughter-turned-warrior hero, just "isn't interested in that kind of pleasure."

Huh? Elizabeth Moon has tried to replicate a few too many elements of The Lord of the Rings, without realizing that only Tolkien himself can get away with half the stuff he actually gets away with. The rule in fantasy publishing has always been: female warriors must always be demons between the sheets, because that's what readers want.

In this case, though, we all ought to be glad that the publisher fell asleep at the switch. This is actually a pretty damned good book. It starts slowly, just like Paksenarrion's life. She is, like I said, a sheepfarmer's daughter from a small town who doesn't want to marry the peasant boy from across the hedge that her father has chosen for her. So she does the sensible thing and runs away to join a mercenary army. The army is headed by Duke Phelan, whom everyone calls "the Duke" but who is probably not an actual duke. Got it? The Duke is a great military commander who runs a tight ship, and Paks (as everyone calls her) soon learns the fundamentals of fighting in the infantry. She also learns that she has a natural talent for it.

As the story continues, Paks learns more and more about fighting with different weapons, and about tactics and strategy. Her skills begin to be noticed, and she eventually finds herself accepted into an elite military training academy run by a religious sect that is sworn to protect and defend the innocent. But before Paks can master the challenges of paladin-school, she is captured by a group of evil subterranean elves, who torture her even more mentally than they do physically (which amounts to a hell of a lot of torture). Paks is rescued, but her scars have left her a coward, who can't continue her warrior studies. She's not even fit for employment as a shepherd, since she's even afraid of the sheep.

The rest of the story is about how Paks deals with her unexpected misfortunes. Poor Paks. We really care about her by now, mostly because we've followed her through so much, and because the book doesn't really pretend to try to develop any of the other characters. The amazing thing is, Paks is enough. She's one cool chick, even if she's not interested in any flirtatious foot-rubbing beneath the table in the tavern.

This book wins because it does two things well: swordfights, and the inner struggles of a likeable, if a bit naive, swordfighter. Sure, it's nice to have some romance, and a few good monsters too. But they're not necessary. Robert Jordan proved that all the romance and monsters and political intrigue won't save a story that doesn't have any good characters. Elizabeth Moon gives us Paksenarrion, and that's all we really need.

February 20, 2005

Socialist novels?

Phersu links to this list from China Miéville of science fiction and fantasy novels that 'embed' politics 'of particular interest to socialists.'

I like SF and fantasy, and I'm a fan of Miéville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I'm interested in politics, too. But I'm not the slightest bit interested in a list of novels that share a certain kind of politics--socialist, agrarian, or whatever else.

I've liked Miéville's stories, which might reflect a socialist slant; I love Tolkien, who reflects elements of aristocracy, agrarianism, and Catholicism; I love Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, even though the author is known to be a far-right wingnut.

Just give me a good story, and don't waste my time with lists of socialist books. I could use that time to learn to read French.

January 13, 2005

Practice makes professional

The professor who's teaching my Law & Bioethics class said something today that reminded me indirectly of a book by Gavin DeBecker called The Gift of Fear. One of DeBecker's main points is that our intuition is often based on solid sensory data and valid (if unconscious) analysis. Sudden fear, for example, may often be justified even when we can't consciously explain why we're afraid.

DeBecker might just as well have said that when it comes to personal safety, we're all professionals. This is because professional reasoning of the sort that lawyers and doctors and architects do turns out to be mostly intuitive. Atul Gawande describes this process in his book Complications, where he tells the story of his own intuitive sense that a patient of his in the ER with a probable cellulitis should nevertheless be taken to the OR to rule out necrotizing fasciitis. The decisions physicians make are often based on pattern recognition, much of which may be unconscious. If it weren't, the typical doctor would take much, much longer to make decisions than he in fact does. The same is true for lawyers and other professionals.

But what's the source of professional intuition? In another part of his book, Gawande asks about what things make for a good surgeon. His answer: practice, practice, practice. Gawande's discussion focused on the motor aspects of surgery, but the same could be said for the mental aspects of making diagnoses. A physician can intuitively diagnose a case of appendicitis only after she's seen hundreds of cases. My professor in class today pointed out that lawyers develop the ability to pick out the few winning arguments out of many logically valid arguments only after lots and lots of practice--reading cases, making arguments and observing what happens. When they do, it feels to them like intuition, and it probably is.

So when Gavin DeBecker urges us to trust our instincts when it comes to personal safety, he's saying that we're "professionals" when it comes to our own security. That makes sense, because assessing threats to our selves is something that most of us have practiced again and again, for our whole lives.

January 06, 2005


I don't know whether I'll follow Amber's lead (via Will Baude) and do the 50-book challenge this year. I will, however, try to blog about the books I read a bit more often.

Homeland, by Dale Maharidge, looks at how the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the "war on terror" that's followed has affected working-class America. The book describes the fervor with which some economically dislocated blue collar workers adopted a hyper-patriotic nationalism in response to 9-11, and the damage this has done to people who've dared to question the Bush administration's authoritarian response. Meharidge tells the stories of Katie Sierra's suspension from her West Virginia high school for wearing an anti-war T-shirt, the anti-arab response by underemployed workers on Chicago's southwest side, and the effort by white-supremacist groups to use the country's new nationalist mood to recruit members.

The stories Maharidge tells are fascinating, but they're not particularly shocking or numerous. This is why it's hard to immediately agree with him when he compares the nationalism of post 9-11 America to Weimar Germany. Maharidge is careful to point out the limitations of his comparison, though:

As history shows, everything about the Weimar era was steroid-packed with extremes--violence by thugs that no modern democratic society would tolerate, bizarre currency fluctuations, a Great Depression. In the recent war, the nations of Europe had lost millions of citizens. There was stunning bitterness across the continent.

It may seem inconceivable to us that a new Hitler could emerge in modern times, trying to force armed revolt, suspending elections, dragging a country into a world war. The latter could only happen under a weak parliamentary form of government. The American two-party system may be flawed, but it's much harder for a fringe group to gain power.

As for race, the norms of contemporary society would not allow open racial hatred (p. 163).

The interesting thing about this book is that it forces you to ask the question: how precisely is American hyper-nationalism different from that of Weimar Germany, or from pre-Mussolini Italy, or from the Balkan states in the 1990s? Certainly we have something in common with all of them. We've got a growing number of unemployed and underemployed workers who are frightened both by their bleak futures and by the threat of more terrorist attacks. We've got ideologues like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh who aren't shy about using this anger and fear for their own partisan ends. We've got a President who capitalizes on fear to justify the extension of the state's police powers. George W. Bush gives the rich huge tax cuts while simultaneously engaging in preemptive war, driving up deficits and increasing the financial burdens on government services.

Where will all this end? We're a long way from fascism, but how much should we be worrying about trends that seem to be taking us closer?

My own first thoughts are that we should be worried. If I believed that the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq were necessary to counter a real terrorist threat, that would be one thing, but I don't believe that either was necessary. Both were probably counterproductive.

Meharidge describes America as divided into ideological thirds: the extremes of right and left, and the middle. His book is a description of how working-class citizens in the middle can fall under the spell of the far right. Maharidge has seen things that convince him that American ultra-nationalism is a real threat. Although I haven't seen the same things myself, I think I'll keep his warnings in the back of my head somewhere. Hopefully, I won't ever need them.