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Newborn variety pack

My wife gave birth recently, and so normal life has been shattered. Nonetheless, I’ve finished some books while staying up with her daughter while she sleeps on me. The books are a little hazy, so I’m not going to do an in depth analysis. I’m just going to summarize them so they are not lost to the sands of time.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Noir fiction. This book is very sexist in many ways, but it’s also got some brutal one liners and a kind of relentless, savage style that makes it eminently readable. There’s a mystery to solve, which I love, but it does not try to impress with tricks or surprise ending, though there is something like that, though more just its style and characterization.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre. This is a famous spy story by a master (he wrote the book behind the recent TV show “the night manager”). This book is his masterpiece, and it’s good, but it has a strange quality to it. It’s kind of like a really long short story in how simple it is. The psychology and reverse psychology, move and countermove, combined with twists, is really good. It’s kind of like a detective novel played out in the Cold War.

Black Boy by Richard Wright. This is Richard Wright’s memoir of his early life. I don’t really know that much about him actually, but this is his story of life in the south during the first half of the 20th century.  Holy cow it will shock you. I mean, if you try to imagine the callous barbarity of racism in the deep south during the heart of Jim Crow, you may come up with some disturbing images, but they will not be disturbing enough to do justice to this story. Pretty incredible. The later stuff in the book about Wright’s interaction with the Communist party is also pretty interesting and revealing.

Work by Stud Terkel. This book is ok. I did not finish it — it’s really long and the themes are kind of repetitive. Also it’s weird that it’s not really in the voice of the author, who is more collector than authorial speaker. Not what I was expecting. Basically, this book will show that you (if you have a fairly privileged job) how absolutely brutal and degrading work can be for a huge number of people. Remember the Arkansas turnaround.


On Shame and the Search for Identity

This is a book by Helen Merrell Lynd, published in 1958. It’s old, but it’s really good in a lot of ways.

The best stuff comes at the beginning and end of the book, where Lynd lets fly with a range of inspiring and nuanced observations about the human condition. I say inspiring because her interlocutors are existentialists and Freudians who, perhaps riding some of the despair provoked by the second world war, believe that humans are anti-social, full of repression, and who must “accommodate” themselves to the world, though harboring deep desires toward control, equilibrium, and narcissism. So, Lynd comes smashing in reminding us, and the her audience, that the opposite is true. That humans grow and mature because they become curious about the world, interested in various projects, and in love and friendship with others. That humans develops their own autonomous ways of integrating and appreciating the world and its values, even if the world is a bleak and corrupted place that demands conformity or acquiescence.

The themes are so widely humanistic that it’s hard to say why the book is about shame. I mean, there are connections, but it’s quite a task to see why Lynd is concerned, basically, to show us why we need shame in our lives and that it can be profoundly good. Her idea is that shame is a moment in which we perceives ourselves as suddenly out of sync with our fellow persons and that these feelings may lead us to new ways of interacting with the world. She also distinguished guilt and shame as well as gives a number of interesting, literary and real life examples of shame. She wisely discusses second shame, such as the way that teenagers just seem to be ashamed of their parents all the time. Exactly why is a hard and deep question.

The middle of the book I found somewhat boring in that Lynd is wading into the psychoanalysis literature of her day, which is, if her quotations are to be believed, badly in need of an intellectual reckoning. Some of the stuff she lists out is really pretty ridiculous. She engages it with so meticulously though. I almost wish she had sat down to write her book 50 years later when the criticisms and points she is laboring over are much more accepted and internalized — she would have been free to really explore some of themes she is identifying.

Another latent, interesting thing is that she is a professor at Sarah Lawrence, which was, I believe an all-female university at the time of the publication of this book. I wonder how hostile Lynd found academia to her writings because she was a woman (and presumably sought refuge at a place that accepted women like Sarah Lawrence). At times she is writing with such passion that I wonder if she was used to having to be “twice as good” at her scholarship to get any air time. These are just thoughts, I am not sure if there is any truth to them — I didn’t research her life.

A pithy part of the book:

“Common humanity and individual uniqueness are not, I believe, Platonic opposites, as Sullivan suggests, but Hegelian opposites, in the sense that each is part of and necessary to the other.” (235) Well put, a nice way to a capture a distinction.


Reasoning: A Social Picture

This book by philosopher Anthony Laden offers an approach to reasoning that is interesting and well-defended.

The central idea in this book is that we should re think the “standard picture” of reasoning. According to the standard picture, one that is philosophically classic, activities are explanatorily secondary to the subject matter that they are about. In the case of reasoning then, reasoning is an activity that takes reasons as its subject matter. And so reasoning consists in the interaction of persons with reasons in order to reach conclusions of various kinds. We reason successfully when our activity responds in various ways to the reasons that there are.

Laden disputes this classical characterization, arguing instead that reasoning — the activity — is explanatorily primary. That is, the activity of reasoning has a structure that then gives rise to reasons. This picture bears some similarities to T.M. Scanlon’s view according to which various norms are explained as being those that cannot be reasonable rejected, where a reasonable rejection is not understood in terms of rejection that actually tracks a reason. Instead, reasonability and so reasonable rejectability are explanatory primary and thus give rise to  the norms that persons face. Another way to roughly situation Laden’s view is that it is Hegelian rather than Kantian (at least in many places), again, because reasoning starts from an ongoing dialogue that seeks mutual recognition and adjustment in light of what the other says.

For Laden, the activity of reasoning is the ongoing, conversational-like process of adjusting ourselves to others — what Laden calls “attunement.” This activity does not aim at achieving consensus or grounding reasons, but rather aims only at its own continuation. Persons can disagree with each other and still be reasoning so long as they are engaging in the activity of reasoning, which requires things like a background of agreement (such as what our words refer to and how they can be used), “equality,” and “sincerity.”

There are different ways (read, intensities) of reasoning together. We may be engaged in a conversation. If so, we engage in low-stakes kind of reasoning in that what we say may not be meant to

There are a number of innovative defenses of what may seem to some a very implausible position. For instance, Laden argues that the social picture of reasoning he presents is better able to handle a fact about reasons that he develops but that I don’t fully understand about the way in which our interaction with institutions and communities can produce new kinds of reasons, whereas the standard picture according to which there are reasons, must posit the eternal and continuous existence of all reasons. In other words, interactions can change the situation such that new reasons apply (becoming a better swimmer may make one required to try rescues one needn’t have tried before), but, on this picture, there are never any new reasons.

I have to say also that I found the book to be extremely well written and clear. The prose is, in many places, beautiful and so clear.


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.