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Private Matters: in Defense of the Personal Life by Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith (JMS) is the daughter of writer Bernard Malamud. I don’t know who that is, but after reading this book, I feel like I should. But I didn’t stop to find out because this book is really good. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read about privacy. It doesn’t really tell us, in the end, why privacy is important, which is why I read it, but it collects a series of unorthodox and sensitive quotations and observations about privacy that distinguish it from others.
You see, other books I’ve read always mention the same people: Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, Alan Westin, and commentary about facebook and so on. But there is so much more, and JMS has really dived in. She offers quotidian scenarios that she encountered, laced with sensitive commentary, and she mines the literary world for rich examples — focusing on Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. She notes that many people burn their letters, which is surely motivated by some inchoate,  perhaps excessive, recognition of privacy. She talks about celebrity and fame by looking at Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Elizabeth Tilton. She also tackles Richard Rhodes extremely revealing and detailed book: “Making love: an Erotic Odyssey” where he graphically describes his sexual practices, exhaustively.
The latter is such a great example of the way in which privacy may be a two way street. We expect others not to look at our life in various ways, but we also expect that persons will not reveal everything to us. That can be invasive too, as JMS tries to argue with regard to Rhodes’ book.
Throughout her discussion, she gives a fresh portrait of the value of privacy, by picture it as something to do with the way we conceive ourselves as one person among many, connected to them and yet distinct. These connections are based in emotion, identity, thinking, and fiction, and ranges over contemporary issues like politics, sexism, surveillance, intimacy, and more.

And Then There Were None

I read Agatha Christie’s famous novel to see what it was all about. It’s good.

To me the book has a very strange feeling to it, where it feels like a writer’s exercise. Or maybe because its so iconic and influential that it feels like the root story for so much of my experiences with mysteries. In any case, it feels very scripted and symmetrical, with everything in its proper place. There are 10 characters, a nice round numbers, and they all have stereotyped social roles and personalities to match. There’s the doctor, the judge, the military man, the servant, the pretty boy, and so on. Each one has a dark secret, and they are each slowly killed away.

And then there were none. And then there is an epilogue that explains it all. The conceit being used is pretty interesting, though the reader may have had a hint of who was behaving awkwardly, even if the actual mechanism by which it all goes down is pretty hard to see ahead of time, hence the need for straight up answers at the end.

PS: did they do a family guy episode that spoofed this?


Privacy and Print

I read Cecil Jagodzinski’s Privacy and Print because I thought that I would learn something about the way in which the so-called “private” nature of reading could shed light on why privacy is valuable for intellectual exploration, selfhood and so on.

I go some of what I was looking for, but not really what I wanted. The introduction I think is the best part of the book by far. It tries to bring out a very vague but compelling idea, which is that society around the time of the protestant reformation underwent an “interiorization” which is a label for a complex series of religious, intellectual, and social transformations that led persons to think of themselves as possessing an individual self with a personality that deserved to be developed according to their own judgments and separately from orthodoxy. Startlingly, these transformations are connected with so many different developments, like the idea of a narrator and the birth of the novel as a form which prized the interior feelings and judgments of the characters as they play out in interactions with each other. Others have written about how various conventions had to be developed so that readers could understand which parts of the text contained what a character was thinking. Still others have argued that the birth of “silent reading” (i.e., what we do today when we read to ourselves) made people conceive of themselves not as mouthpieces of the authors, but as observers of the author’s interior thoughts.

The problem is that a lot of the claim are more suggestive then strictly argued for. The five chapters that follow this provocative introduction look at different writing genres and conventions to explore how, and this is the thesis of the book, privacy came about as a consequence of persons becoming a certain kind of reader and writer. This theme is traced through conversions narratives, pornographic writing, and letters between persons, the latter being an especially interesting kind of “private writing.”

The best chapter in my opinion is the first chapter in which Jagodzinski looks at religious debates about the role of  reading in religion. The chapter canvasses a range of opinions and notes that there was a deep ambivalence about reading as a way to god as opposed to public reading, or, the gold standard, being in a congregation and hearing the word of god from an “official” source (even as protestantism was calling into question the need for officiality in religious matters). English Catholics needed to be in hiding when Protestantism was in ascendance, and so they made room for reading as a way of covertly receiving catholic doctrines. They also developed doctrines and beliefs about how to present themselves to the world at large, as opposed to their private worship. Protestants too had differing views. Some thought that private reading was too robotic or divorced from community standards, while others thought it was necessary to develop an intimate, personal connection with god. This latter development was especially interesting to me, as today we tend to think that intimacy has some very important connection with privacy — that persons become intimate with others partly by controlling the access of others they do not wish to be intimate with, where this control includes regulating information and access to oneself, broadly speaking

Random note: this book echoes a lot of themes in David Vincent’s Privacy: a Short History.


American Fire

American Fire by Monica Hesse picks a pretty interesting subject matter, but I don’t think it delivers fully on it.

To be fair, the book has a lot going for it. It picks a manageable, odd subject and dives deep into it. The subject of the book is a string of arsons committed by a resident of Accomack county in Virginia, which is the eastern coast which is detached from the mainland. It’s very poor.

The poverty of this placed is played out in the story of Charlie Smith, who is a seriously compromised individual who nonetheless has a heart of gold. He’s done some bad things, but he’s not really a bad person, at least until he gets mixed up with someone who he thinks is the love of his life, Tonya Bundick. Together, they light a bunch of buildings on fire and evade capture even after committing some absurd number of fires (greater than 50 if I remember correctly). I don’t think they ever killed anyone as a result of setting the fires.

The strength of the story I think is the discussion of how they evaded capture by striking at random. Pattern-searchers of all kinds came up empty and there were simply too many unprotected, easy targets for arson in Accomack county. There is also some richly suggestive facts about the character of the Eastern shore and the way poverty has rocked it, and how that affected both the infrastructure of the local government (volunteer firefighting) and the persons doing the crimes. I started to get the sense that the main characters were delusional in some troubling way, on account of living on the edge of security for so long and on account of making sacrifices to stay just out of disaster, especially given the dependents involved (Charlie and Tonya have kids).

Some weaknesses of the book.

  1. There is padding. The chapter on arson was somewhat interesting, but the chapter on Bonnie and Clyde was just filler in my opinion. It added very little to the book.
  2. The writing I thought was pretty average throughout. The facts were there and was the journalism, and credit goes to Hesse for that. I just think that sometimes the sentences themselves that relate the facts and describe the action is sometimes cliche and very functional throughout.
  3. There was a lot of buildup around the reason for Charlie to commit the fires. Ultimately, it comes out that Charlie once said that he set the fires to fuel his sex life with Tonya. This is supposed to be, I gather, incredible and very interesting. I found it to be neither. The comment by Charlie is never followed up, and one gets the sense he says many things he doesn’t truly understand or don’t really express the reality of the situation. And even if he did commit arsons for sexual arousal, this is hardly, at least to me, the most interesting thing about the story. And besides, its hardly the only or main explanation for what happened. A better explanation seems like some manipulative or flawed relationship structure between him and Tonya, of a kind that is not exclusively or even mainly sexual. In general, I think the court proceedings were much less interesting than the crimes themselves — and I have legal training and in general enjoy legal maneuvering.

The Sacred and the Secular

The Sacred and the Secular by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart is a book about what is happening to religion, sociologically speaking. That is, the book is interested in the question of whether persons become more secular and less religious as they participate in a modernizing society. On their way to defending this thesis, they cross paths with several other hypotheses about the way in which institutions like democracy work with religion.

The main thesis of N&I is that persons who experience greater security for their needs and flourishing (e.g., education and health care is available) are less religious. This is a correlation. It might be that becoming less religious is part of a process that provides such social security or it might be that getting safer in these ways makes one less religious. N&I distinguish these points, though I think they are tempted toward the latter, security-causes-less-religiosity interpretation. A really interesting point that they make is that in almost every other country, if one becomes more educated/elite/better off, one stops valuing religion as much and one stops going to church as much (or engaging in the behaviors and practices of religion as much), BUT, in the U.S. this is not true. As one becomes better off/more educated one does indeed stop valuing religion as much, but one is MORE likely to participate in religious practices. A possible explanation is that churchgoing is a networking and social device in the U.S. more than in other countries.

Two other interesting points that come up in the course of N&I’s combing through the data that they have assembled is the following.

  1. Countries in which Islam is the dominant religion do not have a low opinion of democracy. They believe democracy is important at roughly the same rates as elsewhere, and not as much as post communist states which express the least confidence/receptivity in democracy as a political system. Instead, countries in which Islam is the dominant religion have strongly divergent about the role of women in society as well as the prerogatives of family life.
  2. Countries that are historically protestant like the nordic countries, value work the least. The explanation given by N&I is that such countries had, because of the protestant work ethic, got rich in the past and now don’t see work and economic productivity as so important. By contrast, poorer more unstable countries are more likely to value work over leisure.
  3. Abandonment of religion is not related to valuing of science or scientific achievement or even education. Rather, N&I think that religion is not so much rooted in what one has been taught is true but how safe one feels in ones life. I would like to read more about this since it seems to me very likely that there is a very strong effect that certain kinds of public education regimes have on secularization.
  4. A very important claim that N&I make and reiterate is that though societies get more secular as they get richer and safer, but that since societies in which people are unsafe and vulnerable have higher birth rates, the world is becoming more religious if we just look at the beliefs of all the people in it. Thus, there is a kind of race between social progress and solidarity and religion. If we are too slow in delivering security to persons, they will stay religious and the number of religious persons will grow.

The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry is a mystery novel that tells the story of an Australian cop — whose day jobs involves working on financial crimes. He returns to his childhood town for a funeral and gets caught up in an investigation of a different kind. The book is well written and very readable. I read it in about 24 hours on vacation by the pool and I could not put it down. Does it have redeeming value as art? I’m not so sure where such value lies if it does. It’s well written I think in that the dialogue is believable and skips along at a good rhythm and the plot twists are for the most part well constructed and fit together like a puzzle piece. Over all, I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on from clue to clue and encounter to encounter.


Some things that I noticed about this novel. First its in Australia but it doesn’t really feel like it. This may be a good thinking — not being hit over the head with “g’day mates” and veggiemite sandwiches. I respect that. However, I thought some details would be included, just naturally by an author writing an Australian setting that would stand out or be intriguing to someone who does not live there and has never been there (there is one mention of a spider that I think may more known in Australia). I think maybe the reason that such details don’t really emerge is that the plot and story of the novel is what drives it and so details about places and cultures that don’t interact with the mystery are left out.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that the novel is trying to think about a drought and what it does to the farmers who endure it. That’s a nice idea and one I have not seen too often. I don’t think the novel succeeds wildly on that score, though there are references at various points about how various persons in the small town where it takes place are a little snappy and on edge because of the slow motion decline of the community.


Expression and the Inner by David Finkelstein

Expression and the Inner by David Finkelstein is about self knowledge. The book draws heavily on Wittgenstein which made it very hard for me to evaluate at some points, but there are also some very clear and interesting theses being put forward.

First Finkelstein argues against the view that we know our own internal states by detecting them with some sort of inner sense. Then he argues against the view that we constitute our own inner states by avowing them. These views are quickly pushed aside to consider a McDowellian view, which Finkelstein analyzes at length vis a vis some claims of Wittgenstein.

The part I found most interesting was Finkelstein’s claim that a state is “conscious” if we can express that state by avowing it. In other words, we have two kinds of relationships with our inner states, an alienated and a non alienated one. We have the non-alienated relationship to those states (i.e. we know we are angry without psychoanalysis, we just know) when we have an ability; namely, the ability to express it by asserting it.