On reading Seneca for the first time

What is man? a potter's vessel, to be broken by the slightest shake or toss: it requires no great storm to rend you asunder: you fall to pieces wherever you strike. What is man? a weakly and frail body, naked, without any natural protection, dependent on the help of others, exposed to all the scorn of Fortune; even when his muscles are well trained he is the prey and the food of the first wild beast he meets, formed of weak and unstable substances, fair in outward feature, but unable to endure cold, heat, or labour, and yet falling to ruin if kept in sloth and idleness, fearing his very victuals, for he is starved if he has them not, and bursts if he has too much. He cannot be kept safe without anxious care, his breath only stays in the body on sufferance, and has no real hold upon it; he starts at every sudden danger, every loud and unexpected noise that reaches his ears.

-Seneca, Of Consolation: To Marcia

I have read about Seneca, but I have never read Seneca. I started working my way through some of his philosophy and I have a few thoughts. The caveat is that I am quite uninitiated to his thinking, his influences and his milieu. 

His writing is very modern. More than his writing, the way he builds ideas feels similar to how we design arguments today. This could be an effect of the translator, but I wonder if it is how the style Seneca wrote in is what remains influential. Another point is that his examples are very specific and from the real world. Although he speaks about contemporary Roman issues, they often have a universal quality to them.  

Two ideas in Of Consolation: To Maria really surprise me how “modern” they sound. His work quoted above about the frailties of humans is very similar to how people would think about it today. 

Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. 

Even more eerie is the way he talks about what happens to the body after life (quoted directly above). Not only was this written nearly 2,000 years ago, but my understanding was that Seneca was not a monotheist. He was a known humanist who lived around the time of Christ, he didn’t seem to be swayed by the new Christian religion. His arguments about death freeing people from the prison of their body could have been written by a Christian a Muslim or a Jew. 

What does this say about the influence of Seneca’s writing? Quite a lot. But could it also show how deeply ingrained these ideas are for most people, regardless of religion. Seneca does not talk about heaven in a Abrahamic sense (a victory of the self over death), nor does he speak about a soul’s separation from the body to be redeemed as it passes into heaven. Seneca didn’t speak about an afterlife, but he did talk about the separation of the body from the person. 

Notes on The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

  • Ostensibly it is a story about a mid-20s man who suffers a terrible car accident, slowly recovers only to believe that his sister, his dog and his mobile home are imposters. Capgras syndrome is what he was initially diagnosed with. 

  • The story follows a year of the lives of his family, friends and other interested parties who deal with the main character and this bizarre condition. 

  • At some points it felt too long. Richard Powers certainly had a lot to say. But other times I pushed aside other books to keep working on it. 

  • Powers is known as a very intellectual author. But for all the thinking and ideas he introduced, I felt the story had a lot of pathos. I felt for most of these people. 

  • The dialogue was good, realistic and non-cringe worthy. 

  • Powers deftly changed points of view.  Yet the narrators kept the main focus of the story shrouded in mystery. Especially the mysterious Barbara. 

  • It won the National Book award in 2006. 

  • A quote:

In a field two miles out of town, he passed a boxy green brontosaur combine that was ravaging the rows of standing corn. The fields gained a stark, minimal beauty in dying. Nothing could ever sneak up on you, here in these blank horizons. The winters would be the hardest, of course. He should like to try a February here. Weeks of snow-crusted, subzero air, the winds pouring down from the Dakotas with nothing to slow them for hundreds of mils. He looked out over a grain-fringed rise at an old farm just one upgrade beyond sod house. He pictured himself in one of these gray-white clapboards, connected to humanity by no medium more advanced than radio. It seemed to him, as he drove, one of the last places left in the country where you would have to face down the contents of your own soul, stripped of all packaging. 

A lost world

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, points out that it was until the early 1800s until scientists began speaking about the idea of extinction. Before that, scientists didn’t acknowledge or were even aware of the deaths of species. 

Scientists knew a lot about the animal kingdom, but they didn’t think of animals as being extinct — until those bones of mastodons starting popping up in laboratories and curio stalls. The entire idea of extinction started as a theory.  

Think of the change in mindset when an idea like extinction takes hold. We knew we had a past. We studied it and celebrated it. But a lost past? That had to be something very difficult to swallow. 

Not only did we have to learn about the past — we also had to think about the past that was no longer there. 

Kolbert points out extinction is one of the first scientific facts today’s children are taught as they play with dinosaur dolls in their first months.  This knowledge grows with each child as they graduate to more complicated dinosaur models. Even if we only occasionally think about it directly, extinction is something we understand as part of life. A lost world. 

How well do you know another culture?

I am not very far into Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, but I am taking a lot of notes. This is not what I expected when I picked up the 20-year-old book on developing critical thinking using lessons from classical philosophers. 

Early on, she tells the story of Anna, a young political science major from a large state university in the Midwest, who, after graduation, took a job in a large firm. After 12 years at the firm, she was sent to the Beijing. Nussbaum uses the example to investigate how Anna’s undergraduate did and did not prepare her for this experience. 

Nussbaum’s laundry list of what Anna needed is long, and I’ll only quote a little right here: 

In a middle-management position, Anna is working with both Chinese and American employees, both male and female. She needs to know ho Chinese people think about work (and not to assume there is just one way); she needs to know how cooperative networks are formed, and what misunderstandings might arise in interactions between Chinese and American workers. Knowledge of recent Chinese history is important…Anna also needs to consider her response to the recent policy of urging women to return to the home, and to associated practices of laying off women first. This means she should know something about Chinese gender relations, both in the Confucian tradition and more recently. 

Anna’s undergraduate education did not prepare her for this, Nussbaum said. Her curiosity and persistence did. What Nussbaum is also arguing in the book (although I am not yet finished) that no undergraduate education can prepare anyone for all of these issues. What it can do is prepare you to understand that these issues exist. 

Even if Anna had taken many courses in Indian culture, she would know some of the flash points between the US and India: gender issues, worker issues, different cultural traditions and how they work in the real world, etc. 

These flash points (my word, not hers) exist between and among every culture. It’s where expectations and reality is different and where the people having intercultural dialogue must navigate. Education in any other culture (say, India) will give people the understanding that these flash points exist, which makes you more likely to look for them when dealing with a second different culture (say, China). 

It’s not a perfect solution, of course. Instead of trying to know every culture — which is 1) impossible and 2) foolish — understanding at least one other culture somewhat well will help you understand your limitations. And that’s the key to cultural understanding. 

How we learn from non-fiction books: 2018 version

Perhaps more importantly than spending 2018 with novels as an emotional guidepost was the agreement that I would spend more time (in general) reading books.  I spent the year trying to relegate my web surfing to a minimum while trying to focus on words and arguments that come from books. 

2018 was also the year I dropped out of Facebook — one of the best decisions I made in a long time. Like many others who had been on the social network for a decade, spending time on Facebook became a law of diminishing returns. (Along, of course, with the revulsion of the data scandals.) One of my biggest complaints was Facebook is a poor RSS feed—It couldn’t deliver content effortlessly from my favorite media outlets. 

Even if FB would be able to distribute my content that way I want to receive it, I felt I entered an information diet getting so much news online. One of the unintended consequences of so much  information and our falling attention span is that many of the arguments come in bite-sized pieces. We live in an era governed by the 800-word Op-ed. Which is fine if you want just a quick wade into a topic. 

But what if you want something deeper, like moving beyond the outlines of a topic? That’s where books come in. Your average non-fiction book is long enough and (hopefully) focused enough to provide a natural barometer on the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument.  Books give readers the time to spend weighing assumptions, probing reasoning and evidence and thinking through consequences of these arguments. 

As a reader, I have a list of subjects that I’d like to take a deeper dive. If you have the wherewithal to write 250 pages on a subject I am interested in, I should have the fortitude to read it. Then I can see how your book meshes with what else I know about the subject. 

During the past year, I mostly focused my reading about problems facing modern capitalism and the major issues of modern universities, but also spent time learning Middle Eastern history (including the UAE). While the books on the modern universities that I read can help me do my job as an academic librarian, 2018 was also the first year in awhile that I used books for professional development, reading about financial planning in libraries, the secrets of bibliometrics and new tools for research support. 

The difference in using books for professional learning is astounding. My learning on the internet is too self directed, too haphazard, and it permits too many bad habits to creep in. It’s far too easy for me to go open 15 browser tabs and disappear down rabbit holes. Talk about diminishing returns. Staying with a few good books on specific subjects gave my learning some breadth, with space and the ability to cover a lot of ground. Most important it allowed me to review what I’ve read, ask better questions of the texts and connect the dots from seemingly different points trains of thought.

Here is a list of non-fiction books that made a mark on me:

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein — The perfect type of reporting. Taking big picture issues (the fall of US manufacturing, political economy in the rust belt) and showing how they impact people. It shows that 30,000 feet reporting can be a lot different (and much more complicated) when you look at the issues from the ground. 

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze — This would be the 30,000 feet. Its breadth is immense. The amount of research and learning is also immense. It is certainly not a flawless argument, but with this much ambition and this many topics and countries to cover, what could be? It gives any reader a lot to work through. It provides you context of the previous 10, 20, 40 years, all coming to a head. 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald — On the surface, this is a narrative of birds, science, healing, death and rebirth. All these pieces somehow fit together into a modern classic. I savored every word of this book. I even picked up a few other books while reading it because I didn’t want this to end. Who knew that raising a hawk in England could be so interesting? 

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr — What if the band I most patterned my young life after were a group of sociopaths? Well, the story was better than I ever thought. Score one for ‘80s nostalgia.  

Show, don’t tell: My favorite novels read in 2018

This was the year I reimmersed myself in fiction. My night stand used to be full of non-fiction books, although most of them had a narrative bent. During 2018, I decided to concentrate on novels. 

This was a year I met new writers (to me): William Boyd, Annie Tyler, Rachel Kushner, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith, Alison Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dave Eggers (although I’ve read a bit of his journalism), Wallace Stegner and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

I also got back to some authors I first read many years ago: Julian Barnes, Michael Ondaatje, Olivia Laing (although I first read her two years ago).

Understanding life was my goal in fiction. I pored through these books like they were codebooks, looking for life lessons, clues on handling the process of growing older, coming to grips with my history and getting to know and understand the people around me. 

As a reader, I used to concentrate on the narrative, the arc of the story, the broad brush strokes of a book. I spent a lot of time working through detective books and spy thrillers. But in 2018 I became interested in watching how other characters reacted to events, like the death of loved ones, medical issues, heartbreak and loss. How truthful did they feel to me? These are the details that separate good writers from great ones.  

Living overseas for so long it seemed natural for me to wonder if peoples’ reactions to big life events are universal: do people from East Africa react the same way to a first love as they would in the East Coast of the US? Or, do other people raised in different cultures rate certain experiences higher than others? Is death of a loved one felt the same around the world? 

Novels are powerful because they deal simultaneously with the external and internal. And that’s what I am looking for: Proof that my reactions are sincere and within some bounds of normal. And, secondly, an interesting story that makes me want to push further. 

All the authors I’ve listed above helped me better understand my place in the world. Some more, some less. Below is a list of novels that may have done that, but whose characters, plot or atmospherics keep me thinking about them weeks or months after I’ve read them. 

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson — After about a 50 or so pages, this became a chore to read. There was a lot there to take in: sisters with big personalities, wacky neighbors, a mother straight out of central casting. Something about this narrative was off. A strange half ending about 10 pages before the book finished brought that into focus. Somehow, the book still haunts me. I see why it’s still read nearly two and half decades after it was published.  

White Teeth by Zadie Smith — It flagged a little in the middle, but this book was chock full of memorable characters and events. Two men — a Pakistani and Englishman — meet during World War II, and their families are forever linked. My favorite books are those that interweave personal lives into great events, especially when those characters provide a different perspective or completely new point of view. White Teeth brought this and more.   

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — atmospheric and strange, as the name suggests. A boy who looks back on his early teens spent in London during World War II as both his parents go off to “work” and leave he and his sister with a man named “The Moth.” This book also falls into my love of personal narratives fitting into and reforming grand events. Michael Ondaatje plays with this so much, I was left wondering: Could this story be true? And what if it was?   

Why the Replacements' dreams remain unfulfilled

Every Replacement fan appreciates a different facet of their career.

For many years I liked the sonic grittiness of Tim and then moved back to the much more sloppy and raucous Hootenany and Let it Be’s mixture of slop and pop. Even though I liked the blues-infected Pleased to Meet Me, I don't think I understood how good it was until I grew older and saw that as a path for them to take, especially for their singer Paul Westerberg, who could of became a bluesy troubadour.

As Winona Ryder said, the Replacements appealed to people in the same way Catcher in the Rye did: As if they were speaking directly to you.

As people, there was something so human about them, not just fragile but also self-destructive and occasionally revolting.  Yes, they could treat their fans poorly, delivering drunken concerts full of cover songs and play nary an original. Yes, we find out, they could torture their managers, burning their per diem money in front of them and destroying busses beyond recognition. All this in a band that lived very much hand-to-mouth. 

But the music. Looking over their career from the vantage point of time, you see them as chameleons, never sticking very long with a single genre — but stamping each attempt with their own style. In Let It Be they performed a straight up Kiss cover; In Hootenany they recorded a pop song with a synthesizer and fake drum. Pleased to Meet Me had bar-band blues and jazz numbers. Many albums included at least one heartbreakingly raw acoustic song.   

We find out that the lawlessness in their behavior, perhaps even in their lives, bled over to the music. If we’re honest about it, we know the Replacements had some very good songs, but their albums could be uneven. They could be very good live, but they also could be embarrassingly bad. To hear them tell the story, it was the chaos that drove them to be such a good band.  

Reading Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys, the biography of the group, you get to hear the chaos first hand. The band mostly cooperated with the author, and Mehr doesn’t shy from the litany of personal problems: the alcohol abuse, of course, but also various mental health issues, sometimes stemming from terribly medieval upbringings or longer-release genetic time bombs. He showed how they morphed from troubled individuals to how their personalities changed when they came together, not too different from locusts. 

Mehr doesn't play shrink, but the book spends a lot of time illustrating these issues. The band members projected a disruptive atmosphere, and that's partly why the people who loved their music fell for it. As the book points out, this was also the band's crutch: It allowed them not to care, or give the air of caring. The problem is that deep down they were frightened — afraid of success as much as they were of failure. A band that celebrated the loser was deeply afraid of winning. When they were asked to get out of their comfort zone for the sake of their careers (playing a show for many record execs or performing on Saturday Night Live), they would purposely sabotage it (by playing only country covers) or flaunting their crudeness and purposely standing off camera or screaming into the mic about pills. The book’s most humiliating lines come as Mehr reports the band’s behavior meeting its long list of potential producers. 

From the band’s perspective there was something unconscious or subconscious about their playing, how they fed off and reacted to each other as musicians. Westerberg, the main writer, never wrote down his lyrics—rather he would memorize songs while preparing them. When the band prepared songs for recording, they never played it the same way twice.

Westerberg lamented in the later years that he could write lyrics and his bandmates would know exactly what to do with them. When it worked, the band and the song could be great. When it didn't work, it wasn't so good. They pretended not care one way or another. 

And then it stopped working. The people in power no longer gave the band the benefit of the doubt when the material became less combustible and there were thousands of other groups coming out. In their height, the Replacements stood tall among the legions of other great 80s bands: Husker Du, REM, etc. But the longer they continued, the more the Replacements fell back to crowd, bested by bands who’s DNA was so ingrained with their own.  

Perhaps like Holden Caulfield, the Replacements became no different than the rest of us. 

Janesville: The Promise of America

Janesville, Wisconsin was well known throughout the upper midwest as a blue collar town that manufactured automobiles since early in the 20th century. It’s known for other things since the Janesville GM Assembly Plant closed down in December 2008, taking 1,200 United Auto Worker jobs with it.

"But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America,” then Senator Barack Obama said in town on February, 2008, nine months before he was to be elected president and 10 months before the plant closed. 

The irony of those words were lost on no one. 

Amy Goldstein, a reporter with the Washington Post, spent years reporting on the impacts of the plant closure, which became her well regarded book, Janesville: An American Story

I grew up between Janesville and Madison, the state’s capital and home to the large and well regarded University of Wisconsin. Living so close, I know very little about Janesville. Searching for entertainment when we were younger, I doubt we’d even considered going out to Janesville above doing something in Madison.  

I moved out of the state many years ago, so you could also say I don’t know much about Wisconsin — especially in the way the people and politics have changed since the Great Recession. 

But I found enough truth in Goldstein’s book because it was obvious she dug deep into the community and tried to tell the story through its people. She didn’t want to write a political polemic, she told a group at the Janesville Library, but she wanted to show people what it feels like when you lose a job. Or, when many people lose jobs around you. 

In that, she was very successful. 

Here’s a few things I learned from the book:  

  • Janesville started building autos in 1923 — and the city had seen hard times before. People didn’t think the 2008 shutdown would become permanent.  This was partly because GM kept the plant in limbo instead of formally closing it by putting it in standby status. (One other plant came off of standby status for a short time.) This forced at least some people to believe that maybe the jobs would come back and perhaps made the psychological situation even worse.

  • Not just people working at GM lost their jobs. The factories of the Assembly Plant’s suppliers’ lost their core business and laid many others off. In a survey the author completed with researchers five years after the plant closed, some 35 percent of respondents said that someone in their house had lost a job. 

  • Job training laid off workers is much more difficult than it sounds. The trainees first must be motivated and then prepared academically to go to school, which is sometimes the biggest problem. Jobs also need to be available for the students in their new fields. If not, cynicism or anxiety creeps in and students can drop out without completing their programs, which could make them very vulnerable: no degree to earn higher wages, but still owing student loans.

  • Goldstein found more than a few people who went back to school after the plant closed  were not doing as well as those who didn’t go back to school. That’s not to say everyone who went back to school was doing worse off. Yet it happens. 

  • Regardless of what work former plant workers found, nearly no one made the same amount of wages as they did when at GM. 

  • One reason Janesville’s economy became so impacted after GM left was that many people elected to stay in town rather than picking up and searching for work elsewhere, like Texas or Arizona. This is in line with a general trend that fewer people move regions for work as opposed to the larger immigrations during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Yet, more than a few Janesville GM employees became “gypsies” and took jobs at GM plants in Fort Wayne Indiana or Kansas City or Arlington, Texas. Sometimes they would leave their families in Janesville while working these jobs.   

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan grew up in Janesville and will represent the district until his retirement in January 2019. The story partly mirrors his ascent in the House. As the company decided to close the plant, Ryan was a rising star in the Republican party and had spent a bit of time keeping up with GM leadership. The GM closure greatly affected Ryan personally and politically, and he later argued that cities like Janesville afflicted by the great recession should not count on government to lift them up. Rather, they should count on the resources marshaled by the community, which could be better directed with less structural and financial overhead.

  • The social workers and those running the food pantries or job training sites in the book argued that the cuts in state and federal aid that corresponded with politicians adopting Ryan’s thinking meant fewer funds for charities, forcing them to only help a minority of those in need. 

  • Children were greatly impacted by the Assembly Plant’s closure, especially older teens who bore some psychological and economic responsibility as their parents struggled slipping out of the middle class. Some children became homeless as parents left Janesville searching for work but did not have the funds to take their older children with them.

What I learned about higher education (after reading two books)

Titles Covered:

Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education by Jon McGee

College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo 

The transactional degree

Since, maybe, the turn of the century, families around the world have looked upon the university degree as a gateway to the middle class. Many of those people who attend university end up believing that the degree is the most important aspect of going to college.

It’s what Jon McGee calls the transactional degree in his book Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education. To me, it’s one of the more interesting aspects I’ve learned about college — after reading two books on the issues facing higher education. Going to college  used to be a transformative experience. Today, it’s the time you spend between high school and a career.

And that’s partly where the modern university is going wrong.

The transactional product means that people view higher education as a mere commodity. People are looking to be treated like paying customers who must be satisfied, which places the college in difficult position. One, students who only think about college only as a ladder to a career may question taking courses in other disciplines, a hallmark of the liberal arts degree. They may question taking part in activities outside of classes on campus, a hallmark of the traditional American university.

Of course, students should see themselves as customers. Universities have an obligation to make the paths easier that students take through their institution. However, universities have been moving too far outside of its traditional calling. 

College was never meant to be place late adolescents went to mature and learn to be adults. In fact, argues Jeffrey J. Selingo in College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, much of the tuition increases at universities during the last decade and a half stem from new services universities started to meet the needs of maturing young adults.

Bells and whistles

New buildings were built and new services created, like increased career and job placement offices, health centers and psychological services, intramural sports and leisure centers like (the infamous) campus climbing walls and floating rivers. All of these services add high costs that must be made up through tuition hikes. The only aspect of college that didn’t get bigger and grander, Selingo argues, is that students were not exposed to rigorous classes.

Don’t be fooled by these bells and whistles of shiny buildings, Selingo writes. The top schools don’t generally operate this way. Call it keeping up with the Joneses. What may also be a good way for second-tier schools to attract students can also be a race to the bottom in pushing up tuition while not adding to the academic bottom line. 

This is an important point from both of these books: They are not talking about the top-tier, strikingly selective universities. Their anecdotes mostly concern state schools and less selective private schools, the sometimes quite good and sometimes quite uneven universities that educate the vast majority of students in the United States. (The places where I went to school.) Because these schools are responsible for educating a large number of students, their decision making impacts a lot of lives. 

Is college worth it?

Is a college degree necessary? It’s one of the questions underpinning many debates on higher education. Economically it would seem so. In 2002, a person with a bachelors would make 75 percent more in lifetime wages than a person who graduated from high school. In 2013, that number rose to 84 percent. During the great recession, I remember, the unemployment rate for high school graduates at one point was 14 percent, much higher than college educated, especially those with more than a bachelor’s degree.

But that doesn’t say everything about the efficacy of the undergraduate degree. Selingo spent time following people who were either not academically prepared or not intellectually mature enough to go to college. They fell into a worse hole of paying off high student debt but not having the degree to show for it.

McGee takes a more measured approach you’d expect to find in an admissions officer like him, arguing that the student/university relationship is just that, a relationship. Students bring certain aspects to this relationship, such as aptitude, motivation and aspirations. Universities bring to the table a purpose (their mission and values), the product (courses and other experiences) and the processes, the way they deliver the product. 

The relationship is successful when both sides are pulling the same way, McGee seems to say. 

Selingo, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a more big picture focus. What the US needs, he argues, is to create viable education alternatives between the high school diploma and the college degree. Programs that should be geared towards specific jobs, but with the idea that today’s students will most likely secure five to ten different professional jobs in their future. Tomorrow’s programs need to have enough practical applicability to make students immediately marketable but also include enough background where students could teach themselves to learn for the future. Community colleges and other state institutions do a lot of this work already, but many of them remain financially strapped that a degree from these places may not be so financially beneficial. 

A lot of students we met were turned off by various aspects of a liberal education. They felt that the process of choosing a college is too opaque to make educated decisions. Many students felt that no matter their individual needs they were led down the same paths tread by everyone else. 

Higher education's biggest challenge is how to handle the growing chasm between education needs and current reality. Universities will be forced to develop new course delivery methods with an increasingly mobile (and busy) student body. Their programs must better be suited to students who now transfer schools at a much higher rate than even a generation before. They will also have to do a better job of aligning their needs with that of industry, creating degrees not from the whims of 19 year olds but from actual market needs. 

So lists most of my knowledge of higher education (in the United States) after reading two books. 

Reading Shakespeare: New source found for Bard's plays

From The Guardian: Scholar finds new sources for parts of Shakespeare’s plays. 

Independent scholar Dennis McCarthy and LaFayette College professor June Schlueter used WCopyfind software to compare passages from Shakespeare’s plays with George North’s 1576 unpublished manuscript, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion, about the dangers of rebelling against a king. They were able to trace more than 20 passages back to the essay, including Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, Macbeth’s comparison of dog breeds to different classes of men, the Fool’s Merlin prophecy in King Lear, and the events surrounding Jack Cade’s fatal fight with Alexander Iden in Henry VI.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez, a Lahore-born and raised Pakistani, returns home after graduating from Princeton in the US and getting fired from his job at a prestigious New York finance firm. A woman may be to blame, but so is America's reaction to 9/11 in general and a semi-bearded Pakistani in particular. His story is unspooled through a dinner conversation with an unnamed American who Changez happens to meet next a market in Lahore. 

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2007), the Reluctant Fundamentalist is a mediation on identity and nostalgia (both personal and public), class (Changez comes from a noble, but falling family in Pakistan and climbs the ladder in America's education realm and New York’s finance sector) and the truth/fiction of the stories and myths we use to define us. 

The novel's tension lies in understanding why Changez rescinds his role as bridge between two countries (or, two worlds). Here Changez lectures his unnamed guest:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

While much of the narrative flow takes place on the personal level (and in the the US), Lahore becomes a great unnamed character:

You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness — with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards — they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts that lie between us and the River Ravi—the congested, maze-like heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheel who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Mohsin Hamid's second novel. He’s now written four, and he continues his experimentation with the dramatic monologue, in which a single speaker uses stories to reveal his or her character to a silent audience. These tales, especially in the hands of compelling narrators like Changez, have an intimate and warmth to them that is supposed to persuade the listener.

As always, such conviction should be taken with a grain of salt. Check out these CliffsNotes questions you should ask yourself when coming across a dramatic monologue:  

- Who is the speaker talking to or why? 
- What tactics is the speaker using to make his case?
- Does the speaker seem to change his mind during the poem?

Reviewers and book jacket blurbers spent a lot of time exploring the underlying tension between this man of the “East” who once lived in the “West.” If we know Changez through his stories, though, we don't know much about the man he's speaking to. Much was written about the first CliffsNotes question above— who is the person Changez speaks to? He is just a tourist? Or, something a bit more complicated? 

Mohsin Hamid explains some of his explorations with story forms: 

In my final year, as I was starting my first novel, I read The Fall by Camus. It is written as a dramatic monologue, with the protagonist constantly addressing the reader as “you,” and it changed how I thought books could work. I was amazed by the potential of the “you”, of how much space it could open up in fiction.

The book I was writing then, back in 1993, became Moth Smoke, the tale of a pot-smoking ex-banker who falls disastrously in love with his best friend’s wife. You, the reader, are cast as his judge. The story has what might be called a realistic narrative – there is no magic, no aliens – but the frame of the trial that it uses isn’t realism. It is something else: make-believe, play, with “you” given an active role.

In my second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wanted to explore this further, push the boundaries of what I knew how to do with “you”. Camus’s novel was a guide, but my project was my own: to try to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader – fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty – could colour a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on. I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics.

In all, this is a fascinating read.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes

For the last 15 years or so, the US has been increasingly failed by its institutions:

  • The government (think response to Katrina, build up and carrying out of Iraq War)
  • The universities (think Penn State child rape scandal, and I'd add, Baylor University)
  • The Catholic Church
  • Financial regulators
  • The media (think missing the story of the Iraq War, the missing story of financial regulation).

Hayes is interested in illustrating where the failure comes from and what it's doing to us.

We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of broad and devastating crisis of authority.


Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating the extreme economic inequality of scope and scale unseen since since the last Gilded Age. … There are many reasons for inequality, but the underlying idea is it is shared in our meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be member in good standing of that select few.


But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The closest I ever came to first-hand knowledge of slavery in the US was a station on the underground railroad in Milton, WI where we would take elementary school field trips. Suffice to say, I don't know too much about the human details of the system of slavery: terror as a economic model and an organizing principle.

Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad is certainly eye opening on the level of day-to-day existence of slaves: living on the economic whims of agriculture (especially cotton) and the barbaric and impetuous impulses of slave holders. But that’s not the power of Whitehead's book. It’s making these personal stories so universal and modern.

Take this — from the novel's main character Cora as she hides in an attic in the home of Martin and Ethel, very reluctant (and they thought, former) members of the underground railroad in barbarous North Carolina (which used to be a popular stop, the underground railroad conductor told Cora, “from what I’m told. Not anymore.”). The North Carolina of the novel tried to outlaw not slavery, but African Americans.

“In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.”

Riding in a carriage, Martin pulls back the blanket covering Cora to show her what the locals call ‘The Freedom Trail,’ corpses of African Americans hanging from trees, signs of torture apparent, going all the way to town.

Cora spends months hidden in Martin’s and Ethel’s attic, across the street from the town park where every Friday the town meets for a concert, the production of a play and the hanging of an African American:

Cora hadn’t left the top floors of the house in months but her perspective roved widely. North Carolina had its Justice Hill, and she had hers. Looking down over the universe of the park, she saw the town drift where it wanted, washed by sunlight on a stone bench, cooled in the shadows of the hanging tree. But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. Martin and Ethel were terrified of the watchful eyes behind every darkened window. The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things the dark: the rising black tribe; the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in the attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family.   

What is Populism?

"Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers. What makes them all “populists”, and does the word actually mean anything?" The Economist recently asked.

Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University answered in a book-length essay: What is Populism? “Populism is seen as a threat but also as a potential corrective for politics that has somehow become too distant from ‘the people,’” Müller writes.

“Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unifiedbut I shall argue, ultimately fictionalpeople against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way inferior.” (19-20)

Populists justify their acts by claiming that they—and they alone—speak for the people. Müller says the populists government's exhibit these features:

  1. Attempts to colonize the non-partisan state apparatus (judiciary, civil servants, etc.) with representatives of “the people”
  2. Corruption in the form of mass clientelism — trading specific benefits or favors for political support
  3. Efforts to systematically to suppress civil society seen in opposition

“Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people.” (p. 4).

What sets populists apart is how they define who “the people” is. Populists, by Müller’s definition, often view citizenry in narrow terms, purposely excluding specific groups. “Right-wing populists also typically claim to discern a symbiotic relationship between an elite that does not truly belong and marginal groups that are also distinct from the people.” (p. 23)

“Apart from determining who really belongs to the people, populists therefore need to say something about the content of what the authentic people actually want. What they usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy.” (p. 25)

When in power

“Populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people. Hence it becomes crucial to argue (and supposedly “prove”) that civil society isn’t civil society at all, and that what can seem like popular opposition has nothing to do with proper people.” (p. 48)

For all the potential problems populists bring—the silencing of opposition civil society or the press, the corruption, the narrow definition of what it means to be a true citizen—the reasons populists become popular stem from a very specific issue:  parts of the population are truly underrepresented.

“Those defending democracy against populism also have to be honest that all is not well with existing democracies in Western Europe and North America…[T]hey are increasingly suffering from the defect that weaker socioeconomic groups do not participate in the political process and do not have their interests represented effectively.” 59-60

The man in the crowd photo by Hernán Piñera.