24 December 2013

Best and Worst of 2013

Best Fiction
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
(original review)

Written as a set of letters from a businessman in India to the leader of China, relating the businessman's growth into a savvy adult, The White Tiger was the best work of fiction I reviewed all year.  I wrote:
The text is funny and sad. It stands in judgment of modern Indian society (as superficial, as cruel, as provincial), while standing in testament to some of the best things about the country by virtue of its very existence, as a work of profound beauty and artistry. Almost everyone will enjoy it; the prose spins perfectly and cleanly like a Swiss watch.
The White Tiger is very many things, most particularly an epistolary book and a bildungsroman.  And because each of these elements could have gone badly wrong, it's amazing to see them all done well, and to see them mesh together.

As an epistolary book, each letter/chapter is addressed to the Chinese Premier, the ostensible target of a series of lessons about life.  The author of these letters, Balram, is a wealthy and successful businessman.  After reading about China's new push for capitalist success, Balram writes the leader of that country to impart what he has discovered about succeeding in India.  Success in India, in Balram's eyes, is a matter of deceit, theft, and ruthlessness.

The letters are written in a goofy style and with affrontery, and could easily have fallen flat into silliness.  Instead, the tone is perfect.  By making each episode into an obvious set piece, the serious chapters are given a grim whimsy and the funny chapters are made briskly gleeful.

Balram relates his life in his letters to the Premier, from when he scrabbled for scraps in a tiny village to his current position as head of a company.  It is a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story.  And most of his growth comes from a gradual loss of innocence, and increasingly unscrupulousness.  Behind it all there is a savage greed, powering him to advance himself.  In so many ways and in the eyes of so many, it would be admirable; after all, he continually improves his life and increases his wealth.  It is only the reader, who witnesses the blackening of Balram's jaded soul, who might call it a villainous progression.
See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called a Halwai made sweets. The man called a cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned feces. Landlords were kind to their serfs. Women covered their heads with a veil and turned their eyes to the ground when talking to strange men.

And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947-the day the British left-the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law. Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn't matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up. My father's father must have been a real Halwai, a sweet-maker, but when he inherited the shop, a member of some other caste must have stolen it from him with the help of the police. My father had not had the belly to fight back. That's why he had fallen all the way to the mud, to the level of a rickshaw-puller. That's why I was cheated of my destiny to be fat, and creamy-skinned, and smiling.

To sum up - in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat - or get eaten up.
I wouldn't presume to say that The White Tiger represents modern India, or even the capitalism of India.  So many have found success in such troubled circumstances, many with the heads held high, and I was a tourist for only a few months.  But every word of the book rang true as I read it, even if we only consider it a moment of introspection for a country struggling with its rising wealth and sustained inequality.

And of course, it's simply wonderful to read.

Best Nonfiction
The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling
(original review)
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
(original review)

Is this cheating?  It might be cheating.  I'm cheating.

These two books are the best nonfiction books I read all year, and I refuse to pick between them.  You should read both of them.  Both books discuss how to live your life, in a way that is both theoretically deep and practically applicable.  Both books are written with the knowledge of an expert and the patience of a teacher.  And both books will help you think.

I reviewed Thomas Schelling's book just the other day, and I renew my commendations:
To The Strategy of Conflict I give much higher praise: this is a book that made me think differently and deeply about very important things.

Thomas Schelling, the author, wrote the book during the late fifties, having become dissatisfied with the lack of serious theoretical analysis of international relations. He applied game theory, the study of decision-making, to the conflicts and problems of the world. So many countries acted in such bizarre ways that defied conventional wisdom: why did these crazy patterns tend to work? And if we can explain these choices, can we learn how to make even better ones?
It's not until you actually begin to think about the implications behind such a simple thing as a threat that you truly begin to understand that the most important thing in making a threat is to credibly reduce your options, since carrying out threats is rarely pleasant.  As Schelling writes:
The distinctive character of a threat is that one asserts that he will do, in a contingency, what he would manifestly prefer not to do if the contingency occurred, the contingency being governed by the second party's behavior.  Like the ordinary commitment, the threat is a surrender of choice, a renunciation of alternatives, that makes one worse off than he need be in the event the tactic fails; the threat and the commitment are both motivated by the possibility that a rational second player can be constrained by his knowledge that the first player has altered his own incentive structure.  Like an ordinary commitment, a threat can constrain the other player only insofar as it carries to the other player at least some appearance of obligation; if I threaten to blow us both to bits unless you close the window, you know that I won't unless I have somehow managed to leave myself no choice in the matter.
These sorts of considerations, which are simultaneously trivial and vital, are why Schelling was the person to articulate the entire idea of a "credible threat."

Likewise, Thinking, Fast and Slow takes sets of dynamics that seem to make no sense, and breaks down exactly the way in which they are not only sensible, but often enormously clever solutions to enormously difficult problems.
The center of Kahneman's book is his theory, developed in conjunction with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky, that human thought takes place in two different modes - the titular fast mode, which he calls System 1, and the slower System 2. System 1 operates on broad rules of thumb or heuristics, jumping to conclusions according to principles that are likely to arrive at the right answer most of the time, while System 2 is the more laborious process of contemplative thought. Kahneman goes through a long list of cognitive phenomena, discovered both by himself and by other researchers, and assembles them into order under this two-system schema.
One example I mentioned in my review is how the human mind grapples with estimating the frequency of an event.  To know exactly how often something happens would require that the mind keep track of not only all discrete instances of that event, but also all the times it didn't happen.  And the mind would also need vast other databases of events and non-events, to compare it with.  It's an almost insurmountable problem: how could a human brain ever hope to amass and collate such oceans of data, and still function in the world?  But modern psychology, as explained by Kahneman, has neatly found a shortcut - a heuristic that works 90% of the time.
[O]ne well-known phenomenon mentioned in the text is the "availability heuristic." This is the principle we often unconsciously use to determine the frequency of an event. It boils down to the easy availability of examples when we think about that event. If many examples come to mind, then we assume that the event happens frequently.
Kahneman, like Schelling, explains in cogent and careful prose the inner workings of simple things.  Both authors, and both books, do one of the very best things you can ask from a book: they make you think.

Worst Fiction
One Night @ the Call Center, Chetan Bhagat
(original review)

I really, really hated The Alchemist, so in an odd kind of way, this is an accomplishment on Bhagat's part: it took a truly exceptional piece of nonsense to win this category.  And given the months Lizzie and I spent in India, perhaps it's also fitting that books from that country represent both the best and worst of fiction I reviewed this past year.

One Night @ the Call Center is badly written.  I imagine that when Chetan Bhagat was a child, an author badly hurt him.  Maybe this writer insulted the boy, or made some cutting remark.  But whatever happened, it sank deep within Bhagat.  He held that hurt within him, close to his heart, and nurtured it.  It pulsed and festered, a veiny lumpish thing of anger.  And after so many years, so very many years, he finally was able to get his revenge.  In a dimly lit room, his face washed by the glow of his computer screen, Bhagat types out sentences.  They're perfectly ordinary sentences, adequate and expressive.  And then he butchers them.  Slowly, carefully.  Bhagat dismembers them, and turns them into things of monstrous banality.  Did he express an original thought, without a cliche involved?  He slices into the sentence, and replaces the wholesome flesh of creation with a scabrous bit of chewed-over meat.  With vengeance in his glittering eyes, Bhagat creates horrors of prose.

That's what it's like to read One Night @ the Call Center.  It's like reading someone's attack on literature itself.
Priyanka was making a table of numbers on her notepad. I think she was making a calendar to figure out the day she was getting married. I felt like ripping her notebook to shreds. Esha was digging her pen’s nib deep into her notepad so that it came out at the other end.

"Send agents to the US? Move them to Boston?" Bakshi said and laughed.

"Well a few of them, at least on trial basis. Some of them are really smart. Who knows, they may get that one client that could save a hundred jobs. Right Shyam?" Vroom said

"Huh?" I said startled to hear my name.

"Mr Victor, as a feedback-oriented manager I appreciate your inputs. However, I do not think it is such a good idea," Bakshi said.

"Why not?" Vroom demanded with the innocence of a primary school kid.

"Because if it was such a good idea, someone would have thought of it before. Why didn’t it strike me for instance?" Bakshi said.

"Huh?" Vroom said, completely flabbergasted. I had heard it all before so it did not move me. I was aware of every red, white, and black blood cell in Bakshi’s body.
One Night @ the Call Center has a terrible plot.  There are six characters with various problems, and near the end of the book, they receive a phone call from God who gives them some (slightly lame) advice.  It seems as though he was attempting to showcase the miraculous by setting it among the mundane, in a sort of inept magical realism.  But because the whole plot hinges on that single moment, the opposite occurs.

Further, the call-center employees who are our characters decide to preserve their jobs by mounting a campaign of terrorism - their triumphant plan is to spread the rumor that a virulent computer virus has taken over all of America's computers and requires their immediate and continual intervention.

I have thought about it for a while, and I honestly cannot think of a more selfish plan.  It's like a group of road workers deciding to save their jobs by taking jackhammers to the overstate - yes, they might keep their jobs, but at the expense of the huge inconvenience of hundreds of thousands of other people.

One Night @ the Call Center has an awful message.  Like everything Bhagat has written, it's misogynistic.  Women are portrayed, without exception, as unreasonable and flighty creatures who make irrational decisions.  This might be begged off in some of his books by blaming unreliable narrators, since the protagonists of Bhagat's books are all immature and nasty little men, but not so in this text.  I wrote in the original review:
Mildly misogynistic, impatient, and selfish, Shyam spends almost the entire book trying to win Priyanka back. Naturally, he succeeds in the end – but it’s impossible to figure out exactly why he succeeds. He doesn’t change, except to become even more abrasive and thoughtless, and there’s no apparent reason why Priyanka would suddenly decide to get back together with him. Literally the whole of Shyam’s master plan to win her over is to google her new fiancé and look for incriminating information (the search terms, Bhagat tells us, are “ganesh gupta drunk Wisconsin,” “ganesh gupta fines Wisconsin,” and “ganesh gupta girlfriend”). Once he has eliminated his rival, whose dark secret is that he is balding, then Priyanka just sort of… wanders back to him, by authorial fiat.
Is there anything to redeem One Night @ the Call Center?  I don't know.  Maybe.  It uses a @ in the title, which is pretty interesting.  Punctuation is fun, I guess.  And when I read it, the ink used for the print did not actively poison me.  So the book's not physically dangerous.  That's something.  That's all.

Worst Nonfiction
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
(original review)

Let me preface this by saying that this book isn't really that terrible.  As I originally wrote:
There might have been a chance to wring out a salvageable work from this text, even if it lacked insight, if it was well-written. A pleasant and funny account of a family's trials as they attempt to drastically change their life would be worth reading. Alternately, the drama of an upscale family attempting an overambitious ethical dream could also be interesting. Kingsolver does neither, instead writing a book so involved in itself that it forgets the reader.
Unfortunately for Kingsolver, I read too many good nonfiction books this year - she just didn't have much competition for the worst.  Particularly not with this text, which was like someone had bottled NPR in refined spirits of self-indulgence:
The steer that had contributed itself to the meatballs on our plates had missed the sign-up. Everything else on the table was also a local product: the peas we’d just shelled, the salad picked ten minutes earlier, the strawberries from their daughter. I asked Elsie how much food they needed from outside the community. “Flour and sugar,” she said, and then thought a bit. “Sometimes we’ll buy pretzels, for a splurge.”

It crossed my mind that the world’s most efficient psychological evaluation would have just the one question: Define splurge. I wondered how many more years I’d have to stay off Belgian chocolate before I could attain Elsie’s self-possession. I still wanted the moon, really—and I wanted it growing in my backyard.
Why does this sort of stuff bother me?  Is it "life tourism" - the bemused, slightly aloof, very self-aware attempt to "visit" a whole way of life?  There's an implied judgment, which is unpleasant, and a definite smugness, which is repugnant.

Maybe what gets under my skin, when it comes to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the potential.  There was a decent book here.  Kingsolver is a great writer, and long stretches of the book are excellently-crafted.  The yearlong-experiment book is one that has turned out well, at times, and so her plan to spend a year eating locally isn't the failing grace.  And even the decision to include the rest of her family as occasional guest contributors wasn't doomed to fail, with sufficient judgment and guidance.

This could have been a decent book.  Instead, it joins the enormous, depressing stack of mediocre Food Experiment Books.  The author's time has been squandered, and yours would be too, if you'd read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

21 December 2013

"The Strategy of Conflict" and "War and Peace."

The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)

The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling

I am always suspicious of superlative praise.  When I hear that a book "changed the way I look at everything," I think that such a person's vision must never have been too clear.  And when someone tells me that "everything makes sense now," I consider all the irrationalities of a rational life, and wonder how that can be.

This skepticism prompts me to say that The Strategy of Conflict is a flawed book, and it did not change the way I look at everything, and it did not make sense out of the world.  Those are the sorts of changes reserved to lesser books - The Secret or The Alchemist or Atlas Shrugged.

To The Strategy of Conflict I give much higher praise: this is a book that made me think differently and deeply about very important things.

Thomas Schelling, the author, wrote the book during the late fifties, having become dissatisfied with the lack of serious theoretical analysis of international relations.  He applied game theory, the study of decision-making, to the conflicts and problems of the world.  So many countries acted in such bizarre ways that defied conventional wisdom: why did these crazy patterns tend to work?  And if we can explain these choices, can we learn how to make even better ones?

Take, for example, Schelling's discussion of the problem of how two hostile nations can come to a major and mutually-beneficial agreement, when neither one can trust the other's good faith.
If each party agrees to send a million dollars to the Red Cross on condition the other does, each may be tempted to cheat if the other contributes first, and each one's anticipation of the other's cheating will inhibit agreement. But if the contribution is divided into successive small contributions, each can try the other's good faith for a small price. Furthermore, since each can keep the other on short tether to the finish, no one ever need risk more than one small contribution at a time. Finally, this change in the incentive structure itself takes most of the risk out of the initial contribution; the value of established trust is made obviously visible to both.
I should caution you now: when you read this book, you will be sorely tempted to dismiss it as obvious conventional wisdom.  You might read a passage like the above, and roll your eyes: "Well of course they have to start off small, and build up trust!  Everyone knows that!"

Everyone doesn't know it, not really.  They can construct all kind of just-so stories to justify other ways of understanding negotiations.  You can consider, for example, the recent diplomatic agreement between Iran and the United States, and the many pundits who scorned the agreement's efficacy. “To try and go strike a deal for a deal’s sake could jeopardize U.S. security interests," argued House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  "[S]ince when do we trust Iran? Iran has demonstrated again and again it cannot be trusted."

Yes, partisanship more than reason is probably at work there - any lasting peace deal would be a feather in the President's cap - but this sort of argument about trust should be dismissed out of hand when it ignores the function a small and incomplete deal might have in building that trust and credibly indicating the possibility of further deals.

Interestingly, Schelling also discusses exactly this sort of criticism within a country, and how it can serve the interests of a negotiating partner.  Because of criticism like this, President Obama's options are significantly constrained, in a very evident manner.  The Iranian negotiators are aware of this, and are aware that a deal that is not favorable enough to certain U.S. interests will not be approved.  And so, Obama's negotiating team begins to move towards compromise from a significantly more advantageous position.  And in order to maintain this advantage, Obama will not work too hard to silence his critics - they are helping him (of course he has to appear to at least try to rebut them, to maintain good faith).

The Strategy of Conflict goes many more levels deeper than just these two, and its explanations are useful in many other situations.  As a high school teacher, for example, I have been ceaselessly astounded by how easily classroom interactions are motivated by the same factors as a state on the world stage.  A student angrily defies me - I might want to ignore them, since arguing or punishing them will be disruptive and time-consuming, but I have to maintain a certain norm of behavior and expectations in the classroom environment.  The student implicitly threatens this norm for their own advantage, and the question becomes: at what point will my own need to maintain my disciplinary credibility outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with this disruption?  Response must be appropriate to the scale of the conflict, or else I will appear capricious (undermining the very norm I'm trying to uphold).

This theory agrees with every teacher's normal experience: classroom management is a continual balancing act, with the cost of inflexible enforcement exceeding its benefit - but with a certain standard maintained.  A child can only be allowed to flout authority if they can be credibly seen to be unable to obey - if they're disturbed or weird enough that it won't be seen as undermining expectations for everyone else.

The Strategy of Conflict supports much of its argument with the mathematical underpinnings of game theory, and I admit I had to re-read several sections three or four times because of my sad ignorance.  And there are serious problems with some of its discussions of world conflicts - most particularly predictions about Vietnam and the domino theory.  So as I said, it is in some way a flawed book.  But I have yet to encounter a more cogent and amazing look at human interactions, or a more rewarding work of nonfiction.  You should absolutely and certainly read it - if you can find a copy!

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)

Salon's Laura Miller has written a thoughtful piece on the appeal of long books, which have never (she argues) gone out of fashion.
Part of the allure is simple gluttony: If you’re loving a book, it’s delightful to know that there’s plenty of it. But I believe there’s also an inherent appeal in fat novels, something that only written fiction can offer and that short stories, for all their felicities, aren’t able to provide. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival. No, not even boxed sets of HBO series consumed in day-long binges! This immersion reminds many of us of our first, luxuriant plunges into books as children, and any author who can take us back to the place where we forget where we are and how much time has passed will pretty much have us eating out of her hand for good.
This explains so much of the appeal to me of War and Peace, that most cartoonishly famous of the long books.  I was fortunate enough to read it while on vacation, and so I could sink into it for four or five hours at a time.  It might have been impossible to really enjoy it any other way, in fact; I think if I had read it in fits and starts, then I would have lost some of the many threads that weave through the plot.

Tolstoy writes of Russia during the wars with Napoleon, and focuses on two main characters: Pierre, a bulky blockhead of a man, and Andrei, a soulful and smart fellow.  Pierre is a roustabout who receives an inheritance and becomes nouveau riche, marrying badly and squandering much, before embarking on a spiritual quest.  Andrei, on the other hand, is the perfect specimen of Russian aristocracy - tasteful, intelligent, and dedicated to military success.  He has his own journey through the trials of war, culminating in a moment of heroism, immediately succeeded by a moment of insight into the uselessness of war.  Andrei works to reconcile his life and his new understanding, while also holding together a family that crumbles under the travails of Napoleon's invasion and retreat.

This duo, introduced to the reader as friends in the beginning of War and Peace, hold the story together and are joined by dozens of other characters in one of the most remarkable explorations of a society and an event that I've ever seen.  And when you read the book for a time, you sink into it and forget yourself.  The dividing line between reality and fiction fades, and you subsume into the luxurious language as it unfolds the complicated plot and complicated philosophy.
What he loved was having a good time and chasing women, and since, according to him, these tastes were in no way dishonourable, and he was incapable of considering how his gratification of them might affect other people, he genuinely considered himself beyond reproach, he felt a real contempt for rogues and scoundrels, his conscience was clear and he walked tall.  Men of pleasure, masculine versions of Mary Magdalene, are secretly convinced of their own innocence, and like their feminine counterparts they base this on the hope of forgiveness.  "She shall be forgiven because she was full of love; he shall be forgiven because he was full of fun."
Much like Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, Tolstoy indulges himself with lengthy personal discussions of events and history.  He sets them within a context of the book, but then ushers the reader aside, huddling down and speaking frankly.  I have been telling you this story, the book says.  But here, let us talk about this one thing for a bit.  Take, for example, the author's discussion of the popular "great man" theory of history:
Many historians tell us that the French failed to win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and if he had a cold the orders he issued before and during the battle would have marked him out even more clearly as a genius, and Russia would have been destroyed and the face of the world would have been changed.  To those historians who maintain that Russia was formed by the will of a single man, Peter the Great, and France was turned from a republic into an empire, and the French army marched into Russia all by the will of a single man, Napoleon, the argument that Russia retained power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the 26th of August must seem highly persuasive.
War and Peace is an amazing book.  When I read it, a sprawling world of character and history took over my reality.  You should absolutely read it - but only if you can devote hours at a time to losing yourself in Tolstoy's world.

05 December 2013

"Collected Fictions," "Reamde," "The Alchemist," "The White Tiger," and "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges

I must confess: I'm getting all out of order with reviews.  I read more than I write, and the list of books waiting for a review has steadily grown.  This was once to be a review of Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, but that review has been overtaken by the Collected Fictions, which I borrowed from a gracious friend.

I called Borges' Ficciones the best book of fiction I read in 2011.
The stories are often mysterious or have a hidden conclusion. They are often self-referential, or otherwise "meta." Some of them are skilled metaphors. But almost without exception, they are conceptually brilliant. At the center of each weird, wonderful story lies a beating heart of an insight, animating all the strange parts and twisting limbs.
The larger Collected Fictions includes dozens more stories, and new translations of the older ones.  The translation is controversial, in fact: Borges' widow refused to permit further publication of the older translations (including those done by Norman di Giovanni in collaboration with the author himself).  The older translators had contractually enjoyed an unusually large share of the proceeds, but their work has also been described as uneven - both reasons probably played a part in the decision.  I'm not fit to judge its wisdom, although reviews by bilingual scholars have generally approved.

This career-spanning collection includes all the stories with which I was familiar - and which I happily reread - as well as some amazing work I'd never seen, such as the author's earliest work.  Arranged chronologically, in a comprehensive collection, of the most interesting things was the development of Borges' mystical rhythms.  The sentences grow gradually knottier.  What begins as the occasional tangles of his early prose, splicing a complicated thought into the simple thread of the writing, become a distinct weave.  In his mature style, Borges writes in a swooping rise-and-fall.  It invites rereading and rethought, and it allows the author to suddenly terminate the pattern with a moment of uncomplicated absoluteness.  The results resemble nothing so much as a prayer.
There are devotees of Goethe, of the Eddas, of the late song of the Nibelungen; my fate has been Shakespeare.  As it still is, though in a way that no one could have foreseen - no one save one man, Daniel Thorpe, who has just recently died in Pretoria.  There is another man, too, whose face I have never seen.
You can almost hear the Latin choir.

Another aspect of Borges' work that is made clear by a single unbroken experience is his utter devotion to the idea of infinities.  From start to last, he wrote of unending libraries, perfect memories that encompass every shade of color in every day, and loops of time that mirrored each other in eternal regression.  I'd noticed the pattern before, but I'd thought that it was a theme of the collections.  Instead, it seems as though Borges was singularly fascinated by infinity: his stories almost invariably describe people, places, or objects that have some aspect of boundlessness.

It bears mention that the earliest work of the collection can be a little clumsy, not only in the style of execution but in the elegance of the ideas.  The fractal brilliance that characterizes his mature ideas is less pronounced in his first efforts.  Those readers new to Borges should certainly begin with one of the smaller collections (Labyrinths, Fictions, etc.).  But for those who already love the author, let me assure you that this sturdy book is well-worth your time.

Reamde, Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson has gotten steadily better at writing as his career has continued.  That's remarkable for an author of such influence.  Snow Crash remains one of the most important works of modern science fiction (it introduced concepts like "avatars" and prompted virtual worlds like Second Life).  While the cleverness of his ideas has varied in his succeeding work, his mastery of his craft has - without exception - continued to improve.  Reamde fits in nicely with the trend, but represents a thematic departure for Stephenson: most of his previous work has been devoted to exploring the consequences of new technologies on society, whereas Reamde is (surprisingly) almost a completely straightforward thriller.

The book follows a variety of characters, including a wealthy video-game designer, his young niece, a Russian mercenary, and an Eastern European hacker, along a simple plotline.  The niece is held for ransom: can she escape or be rescued?  As the story unfolds, it's carried along lightly and well by Stephenson's easy writing, buoyed by occasional levity.
Until the high-velocity rounds began to pass down into their apartment from above, Marlon had never troubled himself to think about the possible drawbacks of having neighbors who shared his attitude about what constituted suitable real estate. He had the vague sense that the apartment above them was crowded, but that was frequently the case in buildings like this one. From time to time, as they climbed the stairs to play basketball on the roof, they would see people who seemed to be waidiren—“not from around here” types, internal foreigners—and perhaps even waiguoren—non-Chinese. If the wind was blowing the right way, they would sometimes get a whiff of chemical odors, but it was difficult to pin down their origin.

But now those chemicals were dribbling down into their apartment through bullet holes, and the dribbles were on fire.

Marlon stared in fascination at a puddle of burning acetone that was forming on a pile of magazines. Then it penetrated his awareness that the other guys, the younger ones, were looking at him wondering what to do.

“Zombies,” he announced, and turned toward the nearest window.
It's a fun read, though it curiously lacks that cerebral impact I usually find in his writing.  The Baroque Trilogy remains his best work to date, but if you're not especially looking for that kind of commitment, or you just want an interesting thriller with the occasional element of techno-speculation, pick this one up.

The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo

The enduring success of The Alchemist is a sad thing.  The book is derivative, cloying, and it cloaks its clumsy New Age grandiloquence under a thin veneer of humility.  Many people love those traits, so The Alchemist's status as a modern classic makes sense.  But it's still a sad thing.

Spoilers ahead!

The central trick to the story is the dream experienced by the protagonist.  A young Andalusian shepherd has a vision one night, as he sleeps near a ruined church, of a hidden treasure buried at the base of the Great Pyramids in Egypt.  At the end of the book and at the end of the boy's clumsy ideological journey, he finally arrives at the pyramids - only to find nothing, and to be beaten and robbed by an embittered band of thieves, one of whom mockingly tells the boy about his own dream, of a buried treasure in a ruined Andalusian church.  This treasure actually does exist, and the boy becomes rich.

It's a great little tricky plot... but I could have sworn I just read that same story in The Arabian Nights!  It was much shorter and snappier there, since it was only a page-long story rather than a hundred pages of nonsense, but it's hard to forget a clever little plot-twist like that one.

It took only a few seconds to confirm this thought (it's even on the Wikipedia page for The Alchemist).  It's not acknowledged in the text anywhere that I could find, though.  That prompts the thought: is that okay?

Obviously, it's not always wrong to borrow a plot.  Sometimes they take the essential story in order to draw a deliberate parallel, as when Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land followed the same path as the New Testament's Jesus.  Other times, an author might borrow well-known elements in order to rebut or build on the original, like when Margaret Atwood told the story of Odysseus' wife in The Penelopiad.  And the borrowing need not stop at the basic plot or a few elements: Shakespeare took almost the entirety of several works and reinvented them wholesale, taking the whole plot and most of the characters from existing plays about Hamlet and King Lear.

So borrowing and allusion are not necessarily wrong.  They form the basis for some of the most wonderful texts that we have, and you could hardly accuse Heinlein, Atwood, or Shakespeare of being really dishonest in any solid sense.  Because the tales of Jesus, Odysseus, and Hamlet were so well-known, borrowing elements from them didn't detract from the originals.  The new works incorporated the old and transformed them, and the borrowings gave an even greater depth.  Much of the meaning of The Penelopiad - maybe most of the meaning - comes from the role of Penelope as a character in the original Odyssey.  But the Odyssey isn't lessened by the borrowing.  It's enhanced.

How are these allusions different, then, from The Alchemist?  Well, the essential distinction is that it is rather unlikely that many of Coehlo's readers would ever discover the author's appropriation from Arabian Nights.  It's only one short story in a very large book of short stories (and it doesn't even appear in all editions).  The clever trick to the plot is one of the most appealing aspects of The Alchemist, and one that readers will probably attribute to Coehlo.  He should have known this.

The unpleasant thing about Coehlo's appropriation, then, is it seems a lot like theft, rather than allusion.

That discussion aside, which may be best left to literary theorists, I found much else to dislike about the book.  The writing, for example, has about the same elegance as a strangled cat covered in pink frosting.  The characters converse in banalities, and simplicity is disguised as profundity.  There's nothing wrong with simplicity, of course, but kindergarten-grade philosophy shouldn't be dressed as Rumi.
The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was. He lost his fear, and forgot about his need to go back to the oasis, because, one afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy. "Even though I complain sometimes," it said, "it's because I'm the heart of a person and people's hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don't deserve them, or that they'll be unable to achieve them. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of the moments that could have been good but weren't, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly."

"My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer," the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

"Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity."

"Every second of the search is an encounter with God," the boy told his heart. "When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I've known that every hour was part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I've discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve."
I can honestly say, without any exaggeration, that The Alchemist seems like it was written by a freshman in college.  The slight shadiness of borrowing the plot from an obscure story; the lumpen nonsense Coehlo gussies up with broad language; the Deepak Chopra shotgun-style philosophy that suggests that anything pleasant must be true... this is a terrible book.

Do not bother with The Alchemist.  It's not even fun to hate.  It's too depressing.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

During my time in India, I read numerous books by local authors.  I have already written about the abysmal work of superstar author Chetan Bhagat.  At the same time, I was fortunate enough to encounter almost the polar opposite of Bhagat in the form of his countryman, Aravind Adiga.

The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, is a magnificent book.  It's the kind of work that's so varied and clever that you want to describe it in cliches: "I laughed, I cried" ... "A powerhouse of a book." ... "A tour-de-force."  That impulse aside: this is a good book.

Adiga's epistolary novel, which takes the format of a series of letters written by an Indian businessman to the Chinese Premier, is simultaneously extremely cynical and extraordinarily affecting.  The narrator, Balram, tells the story of how he rose from village poverty, and the murders he committed along the way.  It's what is known as a skaz narrative - colloquial and conversational.
It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk.

I stay up the whole night, Your Excellency. And there's no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine. Just me and a chandelier above me, although the chandelier has a personality of its own. It's a huge thing, full of small diamond-shaped glass pieces, just like the ones they used to show in the films of the 1970s. Though it's cool enough at night in Bangalore, I've put a midget fan -- five cobwebby blades -- right above the chandelier. See, when it turns, the small blades chop up the chandelier's light and fling it across the room. Just like the strobe light at the best discos in Bangalore.

This is the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier! But it's still a hole in the wall, and I sit here the whole night.

The entrepreneur's curse. He has to watch his business all the time.
The letters are written over a short period of time, so Balram writes from a consistent viewpoint.  Yet he saw the world differently as a child.  Accordingly, Adiga was presented with the problem of credibly describing the growing awareness of a maturing child from the outside.  This is not easy.  Most books, like Midnight's Children, solve the issue with framing.  They express the limited understand of the narrator's younger self with traditional narrative of the past, qualifying as they go (along the lines of, "I didn't know it at the time, but I was seeing the ocean for the first time.")

I was interested to find that The White Tiger chooses the less common solution to the problem.  In each chapter - in each letter - Balram begins from the same point in the present, before setting the scene and throwing us back into the past.  He transitions, then, into what he was thinking at that time (establishing narrative distance).  His mindset becomes that of a child, or teenager, or innocent.  It's difficult to do, and requires a great deal of discipline of style, since we can so easily lose the illusion.

The text is funny and sad.  It stands in judgment of modern Indian society (as superficial, as cruel, as provincial), while standing in testament to some of the best things about the country by virtue of its very existence, as a work of profound beauty and artistry.  Almost everyone will enjoy it; the prose spins perfectly and cleanly like a Swiss watch.  Read it.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Biography is narrative.  The raw facts of any life are innumerable and boring.  To simply write down a manageable amount - much less in a way that someone would want to read - necessitates selection.  Biographers pick the events they want and create the story they see.

In these four volumes, which will eventually be joined by a fifth, Robert Caro has told a story of Lyndon Johnson.  Born to the dust of the Texas Hill Country, burning with patrilineal ambition and possessed of a preternatural will, the Johnson of Caro's telling was a peerless political animal.  At the earliest opportunity, his genius for people and for organizations allowed him to rise to power.

As a young man, Johnson ingratiated himself to the administration of his college, and soon began using his position for leverage.  He gave out jobs to those who begged, and broke those who'd sneered at him (and it was easy to sneer at him, since he was a liar and a coward).  And he took a casual social club and made it into a personal enforcement organization - within a single year.  That political skill was perhaps only matched by the drive that made him a wonderful local campaigner for a Texas politician, and both attributes were certainly what led to his selection as a Congressional aide.

Only Johnson, perhaps, could have turned the small job of an aide into a role of surprising power, as he ran for the leadership of a fun mock-parliament called the "Little Congress."  He saw the potential in the organization, and he turned it into a proxy for the real Congress.  Johnson would stage previews of upcoming legislative debates, enacted by aides rather than the actual Congresspeople, and soon enough reporters and legislators were showing up at the meetings.  Johnson became the man to see among Congressional aides, as he'd been the man to see at his college.

He didn't stop there.  He seized on the spirit of the moment - pleasing FDR and earning the great man's endorsement at a time when it was invaluable - and was elected to Congress for Texas.  Johnson's drive to win was inhuman.  Caro describes long days of campaigning, visiting every street in every small town.  Shaking every hand.  Kissing every baby.  Bribing every election official.  Johnson's ambition didn't let anything stand in the way - including votes.

In the House, Johnson continued a meteoric rise.  He was a "reader" of people, and knew them with a glance... that's how he'd pulled the strings at college, and how he'd gotten FDR's nod.  He read Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and found a man who was lonely and secretly wished for a son.  Johnson made himself that son.  And ten years later, after a decade of power in the House?  Naturally, Johnson ran for Senate.  Upward, always upward, burned that ambition.

The Senate was harder.  It was tough to shake every hand in all of Texas, and expensive to buy every vote (even with the support of those businesses he'd been doing "favors" for).  He lost the first time, and the second time he won by the slenderest of margins and the most stuffed of ballot boxes.  Johnson became Senator Johnson, but the mocking nickname of "Landslide Lyndon" would follow him for years.

Once in the Senate, though, Johnson reached his apotheosis.  He knew everyone in both chambers of Congress, he knew procedure inside and out, and he had not the slightest compunction about turning the world's greatest legislative body into an instrument of his will.

Caro's writing is sometimes a bit inconsistent, but for long stretches, it becomes truly artful.  It might be a kind of awe at work, but then, Johnson could be awe-inspiring.  He was, as Caro calls him, the Master of the Senate in a way that has never been equaled, before or after.  Reading Caro's description of this ascension and enactment is the literary equivalent of a grand, trembling, masterful musical solo: you witness a human being doing the thing he was born to do.  For seven years, Johnson played the Senate like a fiddle.

The final volume of these four is dramatic in a very different way.  Johnson runs for President, and fails.  He fails massively and humiliatingly, trying all the tricks that had always worked in Congress. But the presidency was different - you couldn't master the whole country one person at a time.  He spun his wheels in the sand, and finally accepted the Vice Presidency as a consolation... only to discover that he, Lyndon Johnson, the most powerful man in Washington, was now a powerless joke.  He could do nothing.  No one would speak to him.  And there was nothing he could do about it.
The inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the memorable days of American history, for a presidential inauguration is a day for inspiration. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”; “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty”—the phrases of Kennedy’s inaugural address were so gloriously inspiring even before the ringing voice said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” that they summoned up, and, in some ways, summed up, the best of the American spirit, igniting hopes so that, almost on the instant it seemed, they summoned up a new era for Americans, an era of ideals, of brightness, of hope. “Oh, Jack,” his wife said afterwards, her hand stroking his face, “Oh, Jack, what a day!”

It was a very different kind of a day for Lyndon Johnson. The stands erected for the inauguration were in front of the Capitol’s long eastern façade. During Johnson’s time as a young congressional aide, he had passed along the length of that façade every morning on his way to the House Office Building from his basement room, with its uncovered steam pipes running across the ceiling, in a shabby little hotel near Union Station. The young woman who worked in the same office with him, and who would sometimes see him coming to work, noticed that as he was passing the façade, he almost always broke excitedly into a run, as if the façade’s sheer majesty, with its towering white marble columns and its parapets and friezes jammed with heroic figures, all gleamingly, dazzlingly white as they were struck full by the early-morning sun, had, perhaps, in its symbolic evocation of what he was aiming for, and in its contrast with the shabby little houses of the Hill Country from which he had come, touched something deep within him. Perhaps Lyndon Johnson had dreamed on some of those mornings of a presidential Inauguration Day. But he certainly hadn’t dreamed of a day like this one; whatever he had dreamed, it had not been of sitting on the inaugural platform, squinting into the sun, listening to another, younger man speak. And as he sat there on this day, he knew that his plans to obtain some measure of independent power of his own, separate from the new President’s, had been thwarted. He was going to be completely dependent on whatever that younger man chose to give him—for years to come.
But then, Dallas.

Dallas, and three shots.  Dallas, and a bloody pink pillbox hat.  Dallas, and a big sweaty Texan bullying everyone around until he had his oath and his new office.  Dallas, and a President Johnson.

He was made of ambition, there was also a morality to Johnson.  He'd worked the cotton as a young man, in the Texas dust.  He knew poverty and injustice, and he hated it.  At times, he'd fought it.  The ambition came first, of course, and no moral scruple ever held him back from something that might lead to power, but when there was no conflict... then, Johnson could be beautiful.

Caro relates the story of a young Mexican-American soldier who was killed in action, and how a funeral home in the soldier's hometown refused to bury the young hero because "the Whites wouldn't like it."  When he heard the story, Johnson - freshly a Senator - bristled and barked in anger, "By God, we'll bury him in Arlington!"  Immediately.  Thoughtlessly.

He gave way and backpedaled, of course, the moment it seemed like the racist uproar might hurt his career.  Always the ambition!  But it was that sort of instinct that would lead to the Great Society and its rising and beautiful harmony of legislation (immigration reform, the war on poverty, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the clear clarion notes of the Civil Rights Acts).

Johnson was a creature of ambition, but somehow, he became magnificent.

There's another volume to come.  It will be yet a different story, with thousands of dead young men in Vietnam and a broken, lanky, unscrupulous President finally reaching ambition's end.  I am looking forward to it very much.

Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is the best biography of this sort I've ever read.  I wish I was still reading it.

14 November 2013

Alan Caruba: boldly finding new ways to be wrong

Our old friend Alan Caruba is a profoundly talented writer, in large part because he's not satisfied with mediocrity.  Many columnists are satisfied with only being wrong about one or two things, but the Caruba Standard (TM) demands a level of wrongness that is truly exciting.  This is comprehensive wrongness - inaccuracy that advances the frontier of being wrong.

A recent column, "The Food Fear-Mongers," is a great example.  You might be skeptical, but it will absolutely prove to you that Alan Caruba is exploring bold new ways of being wrong, as he sets out a methodically mistaken attack on the liberal efforts to ban food.

There are basic errors of syntax, of course.  That might seem easy to you, but Caruba has spent years honing his ability to garble even the clearest thoughts. Read his introduction to a Tocqueville quote about the tyranny of the state:
Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of “Democracy in America”, was a Frenchman living under a monarchy that, not long after the American Revolution would be overthrown.
He doesn't rest content with such pedestrian mistakes - any child could mangle a clause or two.  No, Caruba is building a great tower of unreality, a shining monument to his hatred of all things Muslim, gay, and green.  We know this, and admire it.

Let's get to the meat of the wrongness.  We'll begin with the lede:
I recently read somewhere that there are so many laws and regulations on the books of federal and state governments that we are all breaking a law at some point every hour of the day. I have little doubt of that.
BAM!  Take that, all of you fools who might have doubted his conclusions!  Not only does he have devastating likely facts that are probably true, he even almost kinda sorta footnoted them!  And he has a cause for these innumerable laws that might maybe exist according to something he read: liberals!  Liberals have been banning many harmless chemicals, a mistake which is eventually going to hurt our food supply.  And after the food supply is strangled?
I had a college professor who said that no government is more than two weeks from being overthrown if it cannot feed its people. This was the case of the French Revolution and, in more modern times, a major reason for the initial overthrow of the Egyptian government.
You hear that, North Korea?  You are living on borrowed time, Kim Jung Un!  There were widespread, enormous famines in North Korea during the early 1990s, so the regime should be collapsing any time now.  I think it's almost been two weeks since the end of Soviet agricultural subsidies, right?

Anyway, the danger is clear to Caruba: an all-embracing and monstrous totalitarian socialist government.
The Socialist movement that emerged in the early years of the last century is a perfect example of a tyranny that seeks to control all aspects of people’s lives.
Okay.  So this is a pretty standard column lay-out: we have our snappy quote, our dire predictions, and our blame-game.  Let's hear the list of examples.  Tell me your evidence, Caruba.  Sing me your siren song of dumb.
Others spread fear like those who rant about Bisphanal-A, a beneficial chemical that protects people against food poisoning. The World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Authority and Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have all discounted its risk to human health. I have written extensively about BPA and you can visit the blog, The BPA File, I maintain in its support. Another example of food fear-mongering has been the smear campaign against finely textured beef that was subjected to some very bad, inaccurate media coverage last year, called it “pink slime.”
Yes, you read that correctly: Alan Caruba is so committed to being wrong that he misspelled the name of the chemical he is defending, bisphenol-A.  He has an entire blog on the subject and still managed to get it wrong!  That is serious dedication.  It's not your run-of-the-mill, everyday wrongness.  It's inimitable Caruba-level nonsense.

And wait, what happened to all of those oppressive laws and regulations?  BPA is legal (except in baby bottles), and so is "pink slime."  This isn't much in the way of tyranny, unless it's tyrannical when the meat industry gets bad press.

What else you got?
The FDA recently ruled that trans fats, partially hydrogenated fats or oils, are unsafe in food. They are deemed a potential prime factor that could lead to heart attacks and strokes. ... [T]hough it has taken more than a half century, it is a good thing the FDA has finally ruled against their use.
Okay, whoa now.


Slow it down.

Drink it in.

Alan Caruba, in a column devoted to the evils of government bans on substances, has given us two substances that aren't banned, and one ban with which he agrees.  He is actively attacking his very own column, from within.

That's amazing.  By my count, we have encountered nearly every possible error.  Spelling, syntax, basic journalism, logic, and even the very idea of "evidence" as something that should support your thesis... these have all fallen before the all-conquering might of the Caruba.

There's only one way to finish off this column.  And I can't tell you about it, I have to show you.

Read the end of the column, quoted here in its entirety, as he forgets the topic.

It starts off sanely enough, as he embarks on his final example: an attack on the idea of "organic" food.  Then he starts talking about the benefits of genetically modified crops, including the abundance they create.  And at the end... well, Caruba has wandered off into the mental wilderness.
All food starts off as organic. This simple truth is lost on those who have an irrational fear of genetically modified crops and there is a worldwide movement to create a baseless fear of GM crops. As Dr. Marc Van Montagu noted in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, “In fact, people have consumed billions of meals containing GM foods in the 17 years since they were first commercialized and no one problem has been documented.” One would think that is self-evident since “Mankind has been breeding crops—and thereby genetically altering them—since the dawn of agriculture. Today’s techniques for modifying plants are simply new, high-precision methods for doing the same.”

In a world of heavily-funded propaganda to create various fears about food, it behooves us to educate ourselves about the real science and real facts about what we eat and drink. Were it not for GM crops, the growing population of the world would lack the vast amounts of food it provides. It says a lot about the planet’s capability to produce all manner of food that one of the problems we hear about lately, whether it is America or China, is obesity. There is a cure for it—EAT LESS.

We should be mindful of what and how much we consume.
In the journalism of the future, there are no more facts.  There is no more evidence.  There aren't even any consistence topics.  Everything is gone, everything lies flat and desolate.  For there is only Caruba.  And all is Wrong.

25 October 2013

The Irrationality Caucus

Erick Erickson of Redstate.com is extremely influential, operating as the guiding hand and ideological head of one of the most prominent grassroots conservative websites in the country. He is also a reliable bellwether for what we might call the irrationality caucus among the Republicans: the group of radical conservatives who prefer doctrine to facts.

Before we look at the latest evidence of Erickson's irrationality, let's look at some background on the irrational caucus.

The irrational caucus is the group that gave us Dean Chambers, creator of Unskewed Polls.  In the months leading up to the 2012 election, Chambers spent his time "unskewing" major political polls by - well, by just adding on points.  Romney would win, Chambers assured us.  After all, he reasoned, how could anyone fail to see how evil Obama had been?  America had to agree with him, and so all the polls had to be wrong.  Pollsters were in the bag for a corrupt President, he claimed, and none of them had fallen to the temptation presented by an opportunity to beat their competitors by being the only one to correctly show a Romney victory.

This is not just wrong, it's irrational.  Dean Chambers found his beliefs and reality in conflict, and he was trying to insist that reality give way.

However, I have sometimes heard this being described as "stupid."  It's not.  That's an easy answer, but it takes a great deal of mental gymnastics and rhetorical tricks to try to do backflips around blatant facts.  Another example: when Senator Ted "Shutdown" Cruz insists that President Obama deserves the blame for shutting down the government because of his refusal to defund the Affordable Care Act ("You made me shoot the hostage!"), it's a very clever sort of sophistry that can honestly believe that.

Whether or not you perform these feats unconsciously, like Chambers, or consciously, like Senator Cruz, it requires a level of mental dexterity and philosophical legerdemain that's quite a different thing from stupidity.  They know the facts, and they understand the facts.  It's not a failure of intelligence or information: it's a failure of rationality.

Thus we get Erickson's column for today: "Follow the Law."  It purports to rebut the claim that Republicans are happy to hurt the country in order to help themselves, by refusing to enact minor changes to Obamacare that might improve its roll-out (which has been, by any measure, pretty lousy).

Not fair, insists Erickson.
Vladimir Lenin is said to have observed, “the worse, the better,” meaning the worse things got for Russians the better it was for the communists.

Lately, the left has taken to calling conservatives “Leninists” for our refusal to fix Obamacare.

The implicit acknowledgement here is that Obamacare is going to make things worse, despite their claims to the contrary.

No conservative wants things to get worse. We just know things will get worse. Obamacare will be deeply destructive. People are already seeing it. The only way Obamacare would ever work is if people behaved irrationally. It is a system that requires the young to go out and by their own insurance, but allows them to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are well into their twenties. The law operates only if people do not behave like people.
In his view, conservatives are just being fair and describing the harm they see.  They don't like it and don't want it to happen, but Obamacare is a bad law that will destroy America.  Conservatives knew this.  Conservatives are smarter and more virtuous than liberals, who dared to pass healthcare reform over the course of a year with only a large majority of both houses of Congress and the Presidency.  And conservatives can see lots of changes to make to Obamacare that would improve it, even if it isn't repealed.

Naturally, you would assume that this means that conservatives would work to fix the law's errors - after all, no giant new program is ever perfect - even if they can't repeal it.

Now watch the magic in the very next paragraph.
Republicans should be opposed to any and all fixes of Obamacare. The GOP should not lift even half a finger to accommodate Democrat demands for changes. The Democrats planned and implemented Obamacare without a single Republican vote. They made clear they did not need the votes. They used a budgetary procedure in the Senate to get around a filibuster after the people of Massachusetts sent a Republican in Ted Kennedy’s steed to try to stop it.

So the Democrats can own it. They can own every deleted application, every delayed entry into the website, every denial of insurance, every decline in full time work, and every denial of care that comes from this horrible law.

The Democrats can own it all.

Republicans who have said forever that the law will crumble on its own (looking at you, Paul Ryan), need to step back and let it collapse. I hope the lawsuit seeking an end to subsidies in states without state run exchanges is a smashing success.
And there's that magnificent flip.  Erickson sees no conflict between the idea that conservatives are unwilling to see harm befall America and his own willingness to let harm befall America.  As long as Democrats "own" the damage, it's just fine with him.  It hurts Democrats, so it's okay if the country suffers - the ends justify the means.

Thankfully, the irrationality caucus present just as much danger to themselves as they do to America.  They pushed the GOP to plunge headlong into a government shutdown, without any real plan, because their beliefs trumped polling and reason.  And in the aftermath, the polling of those elements most associated with this irrationality - individuals like Senator Cruz and movements like the Tea Party - plunged.  This was absolutely predictable to the reality-based community, just like Romney's loss was only a surprise to people like Dean Chambers.

That's the fatal flaw of the irrationality caucus, and the reason why our real fear shouldn't be their goals, but their tantrums: when you go up against reality, reality always wins.

16 October 2013

Accordion: Shutdown and the Debt Ceiling

This post is an accordion: just click a link to go to an expanded discussion of that topic.

Well, the government shutdown (1) is over, and the debt ceiling (2) will not be breached. Outside of an actual election, you almost never see such a decisive victory in politics. The Republicans not only failed to defund Obamacare (3), delay it wholesale, delay the individual mandate (4), or delay the medical devices tax (5), but they did enormous damage to their image (6). The final result: a clean CR (7) that ends on the Democrats' preferred date, a clean debt limit that lifts the debt ceiling as much as Democrats' wanted, the Republicans will finally have to agree to the budget conference that Democrats have been demanding (8), and a pair of semantic tweaks to Obamacare that Democrats would have willingly passed anyway (9).

It's interesting to reflect that while everyone involved was responding to perfectly sensible incentives (10), the epistemic closure (11) of extremist Republicans prevented them from actually understanding the situation or understanding the consequences of their actions. When you willfully ignore reality, it's not surprising when you fail to succeed. The winners of the conflict are clear: Democrats, Senator Cruz (12), Senator Reid (13), and Speaker Boehner (14).

It's hard to celebrate a victory that never should have been necessary, especially when it came at the cost of billions of wasted dollars and quite a bit of our international prestige.


1. Congress has to allocate money to each government services every so often - so much to defense, so much to food stamps, etc. When they fail to do so and the money runs out, then the government has to stop spending money. Many essential services remain (air traffic controllers, some soldiers, etc.) but an enormous amount of important government activities have to stop - a government shutdown. This lasts until Congress passes another bill and authorizes more funding. (back to top)

2. Essentially an artifact of history, the debt ceiling is the total amount of money the government is authorized to borrow to pay its bills. It has a scary name, so people think that a vote for the debt ceiling is a vote to spend more money, but that's really not the case - it's a vote to pay the money that was already spent. The usual metaphor is a restaurant: Congress already ordered and ate the food, and they don't get to negotiate whether or not they want to pay after they've finished their meal.

If Congress didn't raise the debt limit, then the government couldn't pay some of its creditors, since we spend more money than we take in. That would have much the same effect on our national credit rating as it would have on your own: defaulting on our debts would be catastrophic to the world economy. (back to top)

3. Despite the 2012 loss, an electoral defeat that was heavily predicated on the survival of Obamacare (McCain mentioned it in every speech, as he reminded us on Face the Nation, and voters picked Obama), the House GOP tried to tie the funding of the government to the killing of Obamacare. They repeatedly passed bills that funded everything in the government but Obamacare, in order to end it. (back to top)

4. The individual mandate is the portion of the bill that requires everyone to buy health insurance. No one likes this, of course, but it's in Obamacare for a reason: it's the only way the plan works. In order to get all that good stuff everyone likes (no discrimination against pre-existing conditions, people can stay on their parents' plans until 26) you have to have some things people dislike. Delaying the individual mandate is essentially killing Obamacare in a different way, but it sounds more appealing to voters. I guess it would also be appealing to say "Everyone should get candy and no one should have to pay." (back to top)

5. Even many Democrats don't like the new tax on medical devices that's part of Obamacare. It's another way the bill pays for itself, but it's also deeply unpopular and not central to the law. If the GOP had demanded in the beginning a repeal of the medical device tax in exchange for a budget to fund the government, they would have gotten it. Instead, they lost even what they could get. (back to top)

6. Going into the fight, Republicans saw polls that said that their tactics were deeply unpopular. But after two weeks of a shutdown, and approaching the insanity of a debt ceiling default, the GOP's polling fell off a cliff. Three-fourths of all Americans condemned the party, and their numbers hit new lows. (back to top)

7. When Congress doesn't pass a real budget, they often take the shortcut of passing a "continuing resolution" - a bill that essentially just keeps everything the same. Rather than evaluating the spending levels for each department and coming to a decision, they delay the decision. It's been years since Congress has actually passed a budget, so continuing resolutions are becoming the norm rather than the exception. (back to top)

8. In the normal budget process, the House passes a budget bill and the Senate passes a budget bill and then a delegation from each house hashes out a final version in a budget conference. For three years, the Democrats in the Senate delayed passing a budget bill, and were hammered for it. But when they finally passed the bill and wanted to go to conference, as the GOP had been demanding for years, the Republicans changed their mind: if they went to conference, after all, they might have to compromise. (back to top)

9. In the deal, there will be slightly stricter scrutiny of the income level of people who receive subsidies. This already exists in Obamacare, and not even the most vigorous of Republican partisans can really call it a victory. No Democrat had any objections. (back to top)

10. The extremist Republican congresspeople who helped push their leader in this direction are in no danger of losing to a Democrat, by and large: their only threat is from a primary challenge by someone who is more conservative. So they have every reason to be as extreme as possible. (back to top)

11. Epistemic closure is when a community only speaks within itself, agreeing constantly and never learning any new information. The Republicans have become increasingly epistemically closed, which leads their representatives to a view of the world that is entirely detached from reality and much further away from mainstream views. (back to top)

12. Senator Cruz is now the frontrunner among potential GOP 2016 candidates, and he raised an enormous amount of money. He still does not seem to have realized that he has helped the Democrats and hurt his cause more than anyone else. The roll-out of Obamacare has been disastrous in almost every way, and it seems like hundreds of millions have been spent on a nightmare of a website. Were it not for the shutdown and debt ceiling, that would be all over the headlines. (back to top)

13. Reid, Senate Democratic Majority Leader, has long had a reputation as a political mastermind. He's known as someone who will quietly and efficiently knife his enemies, without any grandstanding. Obama let him take control of this whole process, and it was on Reid's insistence that the Democrats held firm and refused to yield an inch. (back to top)

14. It was hard to see how the feckless Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was going to keep his job. After all, if he passed any reasonable bill, he was going to lose the support of the forty to fifty extremist Republicans. But if he didn't pass something, he'd crash the economy and lose his job anyway. Now, with the deals all falling into place, we see that Boehner's strategy of non-leadership has let him stay in place yet again. No one in his caucus is thinking about deposing him. It was costly for the country, of course... but what does he care? (back to top)

08 October 2013

Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike

A movie like Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike: Colons Colons Colons raises some important questions in the viewer:

  • Is our society really composed of a heroic handful of geniuses, surrounded by the mooching unwashed masses?
  • As time moves on from a work of fiction, at what point does a film adaptation have to bite the bullet and start making big changes?

And lastly:

  • Why would anyone inflict this movie on the world?

I don't have any answers.  All I have is hatred.

At the end of the last movie, railroad executive Dagny Taggart and steel producer Hank Rearden struggled to keep their businesses going in the face of a crushing recession caused by mooching government officials, while also worrying about a mysterious figure who is visiting other major industrialists and forcing them to vanish off the face of the planet.  They also start having an affair, and plus there's some other stuff that's surprisingly irrelevant to the plot (also: it's boring).

In this movie (SPOILERS) nothing happens (WAIT WAS THAT A SPOILER?  I DON'T KNOW).  Dagny and Hank keep on sleeping together, the government keeps on being gradually more evil, and more geniuses vanish from their jobs.  The only actual events of any importance are a big train crash (caused by the government and general incompetence) and a big plane crash (caused by the dedicated work of many Chinese digital artists).

Such a minimal amount of plot is kind of amazing in a two-hour movie, but it's just reflective of the source material, Ayn Rand's dystopian novel.  This middle part of the novel is filled with gradual decline, long speeches, and tedious aptronyms (Wesley Mouch is the government moocher!).

The filmmakers might be able to plea their source when it comes to those limitations - what, were they going to leave out Francisco D'Anconia's sneering speeches? - but there are so very many other things that can only be their fault.

  • Thanks to absurdly poor lighting and cinematography, the movie has the atmosphere of  SyFy Original Movie Squidshark Tornado.  It actually looks like they used fluorescent overhead office lights from the 1970s.
  • The acting is a cruel joke, and may actually be subtle ironic mockery of the very idea of acting.  Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe met in quiet conference somewhere and said, "Okay, you hang your breasts out there real good, and I'll talk in this gravelly voice, and then we'll just see if they buy it."
  • The soundtrack seems to be one single little beeping song, played slightly faster during travel scenes ("deedle dee dum dum dum we are on a train") and slightly slower during dramatic scenes ("deedle   dee     dum     dum    dum     we     are    still    on     a     train   for    some    reason").

There were also a lot of specific issues:

  • Even though the world was supposed to be in a catastrophic recession and there's supposed to be an atmosphere of oppressive, impending, universal failure, literally every scene in the movie takes place in a setting of staggering opulence: high tech-offices, private trains, private jets, grand ballrooms, corporate offices.  It's impossible to believe what we're told about this world, even if Dagny does see some homeless people from the window of her limo (totally real, I did not make that up).
  • The phrasing of the original book has been haphazardly updated, so that we're given a blend of fifties-era allusions (now impenetrable) and crass modern digs.  For example, President Thompson appoints a "recovery czar" to seize control of the economy, while protesters with an unusual concern for significant digits wave signs reading, "We are the 99.08%".  The movie was released a month before the 2012 general election - the clumsy attempts at being topical are just sad now.
  • One of the more unpleasant aspects of Ayn Rand's Objectivism is that the vast majority of people are unworthy leeches, getting in the way of the titanic heroes.  But that's only appealing when vague, when readers/teenagers can convince themselves that they're one of the exceptional elite.  When you make a movie, you have to actually show large crowds of grasping moochers - something that doesn't go down well with audiences ("Almost everyone in this country sucks!  Where are you going?  Hey, get back here and worship me!").  So this movie gives us a schizophrenic combination of zombie-leech crowds and grassroots people's-protest crowds, simultaneously demanding more and less government control.
I could go on, perhaps indefinitely - this thing is so terrible that it has opened up exciting new fields of study in terribleness.

Everything about Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike was a failure, and it was hilariously painful to watch.  It made $3 million on a a $10 million budget (financed by debt!), and that fate is entirely deserved.

I eagerly await Part Three, now that the Kickstarter begging has gotten underway.

21 September 2013

"Railsea," "The Life of Galileo," "Gone Girl," "Cloud Atlas," and "The Use and Abuse of Literature."

Railsea, China Mieville
The Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
The Use and Abuse of Literature, Majorie Garber

Railsea, China Mieville

The word for this book is "rollicking."  From start to finish, it rollicks you with an imaginative adventure story that's partly a tribute to the venturesome spirit of Melville and partly a dystopian nightmare.  It follows a young hero as he joins the crew of a train that "sails" on the endless lines of rail that blanket the earth, as they hunt monstrous moles and flee the other mutant creatures that menace the scattered peoples of the future.

The book that leans heavily on its central metaphor: the earth transformed into a poisonous pseudo-ocean, trains taking the place of ships, and giant moles standing in for whales.  Fortunately, this dependence never becomes a crutch: this is a genuinely well-written book.  It uses a handful of odd phrases and orthographic choices to convey the flavor of a different world, and the pacing is light yet purposeful.  Mieville knows his craft.
The Medes headed north, but the eccentricities of rails & junctions took them briefly west, too. Enough that late one day, at the limits of vision, like a smoke wall at the horizon, loomed the slopes of Cambellia. A wild continent, a legend & a bad one, it rose from the railsea.
That would have been enough to get most of the crew out & staring at the horizon, but veering a little nearer it was clear that what might have been a line of bushes, some peculiarities of rock, was the fallen corpse of an upsky beast. Well that brought them all out. Muttering, pointing, taking flatographs.
It happened sometimes that those alien things fighting their obscure fights in the poisonous high air would kill each other, send each other’s strange carcasses plummeting to the railsea. It wasn’t unprecedented for trains to have to grind slowly past or even through them, pushing impossible meat out of the way with their front-plows, their figureheads getting sticky with odd rot. “No flies on that, eh,” said Vurinam.
There is much to admire in Railsea, which is almost the prototypical science fiction book.  The characterization is done moderately well but sparingly, in order to enlist our sympathies while still keeping the focus on the clashing events of the main action.  The world-building avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of the practice, giving the reader enough information so that the expanding strata of the setting envelops him, without overwhelming and turning into outright exposition.

It's a good book, and I unreservedly recommend it to all readers - especially those who'd like a marvelous introduction into the practice of science fiction.

The Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht

When we speak of reputations, it can be useful to think of scale.  A writer or playwright might be one of the best in a new trend, like the new South.  Or they might be near the top of the ranks in a genre, such as the composers of musical theater.  Some few are called the best of their generation, singling them out among hundreds of prominent rivals over a decade's worth of material.

But when you talk about German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the scale of reputation is unqualified.  That is to say, you speak of Brecht in terms of "the best."  His stature is such that I have actually heard the question expressed in the simplest of ways: "Brecht, Aesychlus, or Beckett?"

I am not endorsing this triumvirate, mind you.

Those who are reading the work of such rarefied company, then, are presented with special problems.

First, it is tempting to be contrary, pitting yourself against the world and bravely declaring that you dislike the universally-praised classic.  This is attractive, because it is uncompromising (which is romantic and fun) and because it is seemingly bold (which is brave and fun) and because it's more interesting than joining the chorus of praise.  Why be the millionth person to love The Great Gatsby, when you can stand out from the crowd and call it overrated?

Second, there is pressure to discover what everyone else sees in the work, because even if you're going to disagree with the praise, you have to at least understand it.  And if you're not an expert or particularly versed in that genre or period, it can be hard to know if it's historical context or inherent beauty that has earned the vaunted reputation.  It's the same dilemma faced by first-time viewers of Citizen Kane: is this a good movie I should love on its own merit, or is this just an "important" movie?

Third, we come to this work with expectations, which is a serious problem for anyone trying to actually appreciate a work of art.  I'm not talking about the inevitable expectations, like "I expect this to be good."  But rather, we often build up in our minds an idea of the characteristics of a "great" play, and sometimes even the characteristics of a Brecht play, well before we ever get the chance to experience it.  For all the deepened delight provided by a broad education, sometimes the best way to see something new is the Pretty Woman way, when the hooker goes to the opera: with an honest heart and no preconceptions.

Obviously, I found a sober assessment of "The Life of Galileo" to be a challenge.

The story is the story of the historical Galileo.  A brilliant Italian scientist, he publishes a work that confirms the heliocentric model of the world, and he does so in the Italian of the masses rather than the Latin of the elite.  The Church investigates, condemns, and arrests Galileo.  Under threat of torture ("They showed me the instruments.") he recants his work, but, when released, publishes another and even greater heretical advancement of science.  Much of the play focuses on the question of virtue and self-interest: is Galileo a hero?

It's a loose play, with a script that's full of passion.  This Galileo is wrapped up not only in his work, but also in the philosophy of free inquiry and free thought.  As the learned scientist and focus of the play, he is frequently given his soap-box, which he uses in verbal combat and unwilling denouncement.
Don't you think the truth will prevail, even without us, if it is the truth?

No, no, no. Truth prevails only when we make it prevail. The triumph of reason can only be the triumph of reasoning men. You describe your peasants in the Campagna as if they were moss on their huts. How can anyone imagine that the sum of the angles of a triangle runs counter to their needs!  But if they don't rouse themselves and learn how to think, the best irrigation systems in the world won't do them any good. Damn it, I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine wrath?
I am in full-throated agreement with the play's ideals.  These include not only the necessity of epistemic rationality - a clear-eyed view of the world, uncluttered by dogma - but also the endorsement of a heroism that transcends physical courage and personal failings.  These principles are revealed with eloquence and beauty in the play.

You should probably read this play, if only to get an idea of Brecht, but also because there is an undeniable magnificence in some of the scenes.  A broken old man, who has betrayed the things he holds sacred, still dares to defy authority.  Read 1984 and be dismayed by the corruption of a man's spirit, and then read this and be reminded that redemption never dies.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Fifty Shades of Mildly Titillating Mormonism and Eat Pray WaitForAManToRescueYou are both good examples of how popularity can be completely meaningless.  Those books were hugely, enormously popular, but also just terrible: corpuscles on the face of literature.  But on the other hand, Jonson and Shakespeare survive to this day in large part because they were crowd-pleasers: goofy clowns and rousing swordplay really put pantaloons in the seats.  Shakespeare was a blockbuster, back in his day.

This book by Gillian Flynn was an enormous bestseller, which immediately prompts curiosity and suspicion.  There's nothing wrong with that, and I like to read everything, but "phenomenon" books are so frequently hit-or-miss.  They might be popular for the best of reasons, such as innovation or beauty - or for the very worst, like clumsy emotional manipulation.  Some are hits, some are misses.

Fortunately, Gone Girl is a hit.  It's a mystery - a series of mysteries - and one without a foregone conclusion.  I was surprised at the final few twists.  The story follows the dilemma of a man whose wife is abducted, possibly murdered, making him the obvious suspect.  He tries to investigate and clear his name, amid excerpts from her diary and flashbacks to their rocky marriage, but keeps getting deeper into trouble with every false step.  The writing is lively, with an interesting spring to it, and it spins the story in a wonderful way.
I could always turn myself off like a light. I’m going to sleep, I’d say, my hands in prayer position against my cheek, Zzzzzz, the deep sleep of a NyQuiled child – while my insomniac wife fussed in bed next to me. Last night, though, I felt like Amy, my brain still going, my body on edge. I was, most of the time, a man who was literally comfortable in his own skin. Amy and I would sit on the couch to watch TV, and I’d turn to melted wax, my wife twitching and shifting constantly next to me. I asked her once if she might have restless leg syndrome – an ad for the disease was running, the actors’ faces all furrowed in distress as they shook their calves and rubbed their thighs – and Amy said, I have restless everything syndrome.I watched the ceiling of the hotel room turn gray then pink then yellow and finally pulled myself up to see the sun blaring right at me, across the river, again, a solar third degree. ... It is a do-it-yourself era: health care, real estate, police investigation. Go online and fucking figure it out for yourself because everyone’s overworked and understaffed. I was a journalist. I spent over ten years interviewing people for a living and getting them to reveal themselves. I was up to the task, and Marybeth and Rand believed so too. I was thankful they let me know I was still in their trust, the husband under a wispy cloud of suspicion. Or do I fool myself to use the word wispy?
One interesting thing to think about, when it comes to mysteries such as this one on page and screen, is the importance of fairness.  For a mystery to be fair, it has to fulfill certain requirements.  If the author fails, then the mystery fails.

The narrative must be true, most importantly.  If the detective sees a fragment of blue cloth - a clue - you can't backtrack at the turn and reveal that he was wrong and it was really red cloth.  That's not to say the detective can't be wrong, especially in his judgment of other people or his guesses at the future.  But he must be the reader's witness and give solid testimony to form the basis for our speculations.

Much of the fun of a mystery is trying to anticipate the decisions the author will make.  What the text reveals to the reader must be reliable, or else there's no magic in trying to follow the twists of possibility - instead, there's just unpleasant chaos, a jumble of uncertainties (chaos can make a good book, but it's a different sort of book).  A mystery has to give reliable information, and when it's not reliable, it has to be qualified as such - the detective is injured, the light is poor, or uncertainty is expressed.

Another fascinating aspect of the mystery is the fact that there are two ways it can have a really successful plotline, and they are opposites: predictability and surprise.

The fact that a mystery can be fun when it surprises you is probably no great insight.  After all, that's frequently how people describe a mystery they've liked - "You'll never guess the twist!"  There is distinct joy to be had in revelation: here is how it was done, and this is the scene of the crime, and RIGHT THERE is the murderer!  If the book is well-written enough to invest you in the story, then it has become a puzzle you're eager to solve... and challenging puzzles are more fun than very easy ones.

It is less appreciated, on the other hand, that many mysteries are delightful when they offer no surprises at all.  We are not at all astonished if the murderer turns out to be the villainous, skulking heir that we hate so much.  When we read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, we're not surprised at the villain's identity (at least, if we're an adult), but we enjoy the unfolding of what becomes an inevitability.  Knowing exactly where the story is going can be its own pleasure.

In the case of Gone Girl, the pleasures are distinctly of the unexpected type.  There are numerous twists, and the author has aptly anticipated our expectations, in order to happily foil them.  It's engaging and fun, and most people would enjoy the excellent characters and clever plot.  Check it out.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is more than one story: instead, it is a collection of six stories, spread out over time and linked only in the most tenuous of fashions.  These stories are a nineteenth-century travelogue, an interbellum psychological thriller, a contemporary industrial espionage story, a futuristic horror about cloning, and a dystopian survival tale.  They vary in quality and tone enormously, but they fit together with the neatness of Legos.  That is both a strength and a weakness of the book, and it's exacerbated by the skill with which the book was written.

Cloud Atlas seems very consciously designed.  When you read it, you can almost see the series of notes that the author must have made, planning and linking out everything.  I imagine a yellow legal pad, scrawled with notes about concordances of names and numbers.  That may not reflect the actual process, which could easily have been haphazard and rushed; I don't know David Mitchell's methods.  But when I read the book, I felt as though it was a wholly constructed thing.  It's exceedingly well-constructed, and a very enjoyable read, but it was impossible to absorb myself in the story.  Cloud Atlas is well-mapped and impeccably laid-out, and that's good - but it means it's difficult to lose yourself.

This might be peculiar to my own experience, of course.  Other people have told me they found it easy to fall into the various tales, and didn't notice the meticulous structuring.  Mitchell certainly characterizes each story with an astonishing level of skill, tailoring his tone and diction into six very different styles.  One of the stories set in a future Korea, for example, blends both a cultural and chronological distinctness into the text:
So … after the Sermon, New Year’s Day was business as usual?
Business, yes; usual, no. The Starring Ceremony was perfunctory. Two Twelve starreds were escorted into the elevator by Aide Ahn. These were replaced by two Kyelims. Yoona939 was replaced by a new Yoona. Seer Rhee inserted our new stars into our collars in grave silence; applause was deemed inappropriate. Soon after, Media streamed in, flashing nikons and besieging the office. Our seer could get them out only by first letting them nikon the new Yoona lying in the elevator with a 939 sticker on her collar, covered in tomato sauce. Later, Unanimity medics xamined each of us in turn. I was fritened of incriminating myself, but only my birthmark provoked any passing comment.
Notice the genericized trademark, nikon, used to refer to cameras: it's instantly recognizable, because it mimics a process we've seen in our own time (c.f. Xerox, Kleenex) and uses a brand we know, while also demonstrating the passage of time, and - most importantly - advancing the action of the story.  Notice, too, the spelling irregularities, which are infrequent and unobtrusive enough so that they don't impede the reader at all.  For example, we mentally voice the "ex" sound in "examined" so prominently that its reduction to "x" is easily managed by our reading eye.

At the very least, Cloud Atlas is a remarkable achievement as a work of art, even if I found it difficult to forget the process of reading.  If the worst thing I can say about a book is that the careful craftsmanship was distracting, then you know it's good.  Read it when you get a chance.

The Use and Abuse of Literature, Majorie Garber

It's pretty easy to ask Big Questions.  Cultural commentary is really not so hard, because everyone's life is touched by problems and it's fairly easy to extrapolate them into larger patterns in a community, nation, or the world.  The world has many flaws and it's no challenge to find a few.

Giving Big Answers is the tough thing, of course.  And for all that I sometimes disagreed with her, Marjorie Garber deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for making the attempt to not just deride the status of literature in the modern world, but to try to point the way forward.

Garber's Big Questions focus on the role of literature in an era where quantifiable knowledge is assuming increasing prominence:
Are we trying to assess why a college student should major in literature, or even in the humanities, rather than in something more pragmatic, more lucrative, more amenable to the generation of data, or more directly applicable to the improvement of society? Or are we asking whether there is still, or was ever, anything persuasive in the poet Shelley’s statement that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Is literature useful because it is beautiful or moving (both of these are claims that have been made by some commentators and dismissed by others as impressionistic and unprovable)?
The hand-wringing over literature in a data-driven age - or rather, the whole of the humanities - has been going on for at least twenty years now.  It evolved from an earlier and co-extant concern about standards-based education.  We worry now not only about whether we can effectively implement standards for English teachers and history teachers and art teachers, but also if those skills will have a place in the world of the future.

I'm not worried about this.  There are certainly structural issues with the American education system (which may have led to the increase in enrollment in humanities subjects at American universities), but there is real evidence that studying the humanities gives you valuable skills.  And by and large, that's not going to change.

Still, many are concerned about the future of literature and the humanities.  To answer these concerns, The Use and Abuse of Literature takes on the question of literature's utility and proposes a role for the discipline in our lives.
In the pages that follow I will attempt not only to argue for but also to invoke and demonstrate the “uses” of reading and of literature, not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of “pleasure,” but rather as a way of thinking. That is why, in my view, it is high time to take back the term literature. To do so will mean explaining why reading—not skimming for information or for the plot (or for the sexy, titillating “good parts” of a novel or a political exposé)—is really hard to do; and why the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute. The result of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a “literary” way, would be enormous. A better understanding of these questions is the only way to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.
Garber's task is a gargantuan one, even though this is a relatively small book, and her summaries of cultural trends show her erudition and intelligence.  She aptly condenses and assesses the practical and ideological tracks taken by literature (which is often synecdoche for the humanities at large) over the years, even when it comes to the twistier bits of Continental philosophy.  It's fantastic and well-done - just as long as you're really into that sort of thing.  Otherwise, it's as dry as a mummy's tongue.
Furthermore, the rise of cultural studies and other interdisciplinary approaches to social and cultural practice caught the eye, and the disapproving glance, of many former, retired, or disgruntled academics, some transformed into journalists or government officials, who unilaterally declared a culture war. Wielding the three most effective weapons for such a battle, intolerant anti-intellectualism, jingoistic super-patriotism, and nostalgia for a past that never was, these self-appointed guardians ridiculed what they did not demonize and demonized what they did not ridicule. Deconstruction, a reading practice developed directly out of the New Criticism, was parodied as a plot of the left. When deconstructive critic Paul de Man was discovered to have had a complicated past involving possible collaboration with the Germans during World War II, deconstruction also became a fascist plot. Race-class-and-gender, or race-class-gender-and-sexuality, were deemed unworthy “political” objects of humanistic attention, and attention to colonialism (even for a discipline like English studies, which emerged as a university subject at the height of the British empire) was likewise dismissed as irrelevant political meddling by scholars who would be better off restricting their activities to the library, the archive, the museum, and the (undergraduate) classroom. What was most disturbing about these attacks was their mean-spiritedness and the shoddiness of the “research” that produced them, often consisting of sitting in on a single class by a given professor, or listing and belittling the titles of courses or conference papers, many never read in their entirety by those who mocked them. But there is no doubt that this strategy was effective, and doubly so, since those targeted began to retaliate, providing precisely the kind of partisan evidence their critics had wished into being. 
As her argument matures, Garber begins to describe many of the reasons I am not worried, and becomes in danger of rendering her book redundant: in many cases, I'd suggest that her demands have already been met.
The best way for literary scholars to reinstate the study of literature, language, and culture as a key player among the academic humanities is to do what we do best, to engage in big public questions of intellectual importance and to address them by using the tools of our trade, which include not only material culture but also theory, interpretation, linguistic analysis, and a close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action. The future importance of literary studies—and, if we care about such things, its intellectual and cultural prestige both among the other disciplines and in the world—will come from taking risks, not from playing it safe. 
Still, I think that her summary of events is cogent and - for the most part - fair.  Garber sees a literature that challenges and rebuilds the world, and that is absolutely an idea with which I agree.  You should check this book out if you have her same concerns, because she will soothe you, or if you are interested in a socio-political history of literature.  But it's probably not a good beach read.

This has been a very quote-heavy review, but before I close, I'd like to highlight two last things from the text.  They are related to the role of literary analysis, and answer a frequent objection I have gotten from people who like to read, but not to read critically.  There's nothing wrong with just enjoying a book, but it really does bother me when people suggest that trying to understand a book somehow ruins your enjoyment of it.  Garber aptly refutes:
I want to stress a point I’ve made before about literary analysis—that it does not damage but tends to strengthen the status of the texts being analyzed. Their greatness, however we want to define that term, is enhanced rather than undercut by the discussion, interpretation, and examination of historical context. The works of Chaucer do not need to be protected from feminist analysis—just to give one example—any more than the Pledge of Allegiance needs to be protected from its origins in advertising tie-ins and marketing. The more we know, the more we discuss, the more we interpret, the more familiar we become with the language, nuance, history, and meanings (in the plural) of these texts, the better. And this is especially the case, I’d contend, with works that have achieved canonical status. They should be alive to us, which means that they grow and change as the times change and readers change. If they are immobile, marmoreal, and untouchable, venerated rather than read and interpreted, then they are no longer literary and no longer living. 
I’ve often encountered undergraduate and graduate students who were concerned that literary criticism, literary analysis, and literary theory would take away their pleasure in reading rather than making it richer and fuller. Happily, that tends to be a brief moment rather than a lasting one, since the delights of literary immersion, whether through an examination of imagery, symbolism, prosody, rhetoric and syntax, historical context, and/or performance, tend almost always to produce new ways of loving familiar texts as well as encounters with new texts to love. Still, there are moments of evasion, avoidance, disavowal: “I don’t want to spoil it for myself.” But there is no cause for concern. Poems, plays, novels, critical essays, aphorisms—these are all vivid, vigorous, healthy, tough, resistant: they will survive. Dismembering them through analysis and interpretation is one of many ways of engaging with and remembering them. Works of literature are not soap bubbles or daylilies or meteors or mirages: they will last, indeed much longer than any reader or critic.