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Friday, August 03, 2018

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from Freemasons to Facebook (2018) by Niall Ferguson


Book Review
The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from Freemasons to Facebook (2018)
 by Niall Ferguson
Published January 2018 in the USA by Penguin Press


  There are no more than a handful of authors who can can get away with publishing grand historical works of synthesis, where they develop a theme and then use all the resources of the modern university system (notable components: amazing libraries and amazing research assistants) to write lengthy thematic tracts about their subject, by necessity a broad one, about  The History of Europe in the 20th Century, as a generic example, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to use an older example.  Because of the lack of original research, this particular category of books can almost be read as literature: The writer is developing a specific viewpoint via his or her narrator, supported by research, and there is usually a broad resolution at the end.

  Here, Ferguson, a broadly conservative historian, is co-opting the literature of the social science discipline of "network theory"- human network theory- which has been developed by left leaning social scientists almost exclusively, and then traces through a half millennia of western history to show that networks ain't always good and that hierarchies are also a kind of network, and that hierarchies aren't always bad, neither.

  His method involves the metaphor of a sandwich, which two eras of network freedom: One beginning with the dissemination of the printing press, with a hierarchical reaction that extended through the 19th and 20th century, and then a new era of network power, brought about by the personal computing revolution of the mid 20th century.   This broadly reflects the thesis/antithesis/dialectical approach that has been a favorite of both right and left historians, and lends an air of guidance to an otherwise wide ranging discussion.

  Ferguson is best in his grasp of mid level world history- he develops the history of freemasonry, the Rothschilds and has a memorable chapter where he contrasts the British Empire success in Borneo to the American fiasco in Vietnam as the example of how a hierarchy can adapt to a network approach with great success or, as in the case of Vietnam, fail to adapt with great failure.   

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Elective Affinities (1809) by Goethe


Book Review
Elective Affinities  (1809)
 by Goethe

  Elective Affinities was the first novel (indeed, book) to describe human relationships in terms of "chemistry."  Any references to the chemistry between two people in a book, film, song or in real life, traces its way back to this book, about an aristocratic couple and their affairs with a winsome young niece and a strapping captain, respectively.

  I would broadly describe my decision to read Elective Affinities in the form of an Ebook on my Kindle App on my Galaxy phone as a mistake.  Further, I would argue that reading anything written in the 18th century or before in anything BUT a physical hard copy book is a mistake.  It is one thing to tune out the incessant distractions of a smart phone while trying to read a genuinely engaging book, but it is quite another thing to tune out those same distractions while trying to just follow the plot of a book written in the early 19th century, in Germany.

  Elective Affinities is one of the final remaining titles among the 19th century selections in the 1001 Book list.  That brings the total number of 19th century titles within the list to 153.   Basically, 15 percent of the 1001 Books list are from the 19th century. Only 50 or so books from the 18th century and maybe 20 for the all the time prior to the 18th century.  Maybe another 30 for the time between 2000 and the publication date of 2006.  That means about 80 percent of the 1001 Books list is from the 20th century. It's a division that makes sense, but you could argue that the 19th century, which really is the peak of the novel-as-novel, vs. all the experimental paths the novel took in the 20th century. 

  On the other hand, almost every work out of the 19th century is a chore to read- like something from school.  Even the "fun" 19th century authors- Dickens- for example, run long, a consequence of the fondness for serial publication in that period.   Although Elective Affinities was published in the 19th century, it reads like something written in the 18th century.  It is recognizable as a novel and I think it's the first German language book on the 1001 Books list, but still, it's a chore.  It took me almost a month to finish it up even though I had it on my phone and so could have read it at any time.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017) by Sujatga Gidlla


Book Review
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017)
\ by  Sujatga Gidlla

  A major frustration for any reader seeking familiarity with contemporary Indian society through literature is the scarcity of books written by the "untouchables" of India, a permanent underclass who face pervasive discrimination that is many ways worse than what African Americans faced after the Civil War.  The tenacity of caste in modern India is, along with the lack of modern sanitation, the dirty secret of modern Indian life.  From the perspective of the ruling Brahmani upper classes, there have been feverish attempts to legislate the caste system out of existence, through the aggressive use of quota hiring and anti-discrimination legislation. At the same time, little has changed at the local level.

  Sujatga Gidla, who obtained an impressive level of professional educations despite her caste origins, tells the story of her own extended family and their experience in modern India as upwardly mobile untouchables.  Such a phrase is not an oxymoron, both due to the aggressive quota system instituted by the government, and also by a quirk of fate by which middle and upper castes rejected Christian missionaries, who taught literacy as a matter of course, leaving untouchables as the only formally educated individuals in many rural areas of India.

 This is the position of Gidla's family, who despite their status had already achieved multiple generations of college educated individuals in the time of this narrative, roughly from the birth of Gidla's parents to her own birth.  The story she tells bears many similarities to the plight of African Americans in the mid 20th century, when they were supposedly equal under the law but suffered at the hands of unsympathetic fellow-citizens.

  Gidla's narrative includes dozens of shocking examples, including that of her mother, who managed to receive the equivalent of a teaching civil service position only to be turned away- on sight- by the Brahmani administrator of her new post.  Gidla also delves deeply into the history of post-independence Marxism, her uncle being a formative figure in that movement within her families part of India.   What you read here should shock you.

Monday, July 30, 2018

White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo


Book Review
White Noise (1985)
by Don DeLillo

  This novel has not aged well. White Noise was a critical sensation and best seller when it was published in 1985 and it when on to win the National Book Award and cement DeLillo's status as a "serious" literary author who could also draw popular interest.  White Noise is probably the worst Audiobook I've listened to- I seriously regretted the choice as soon as I heard the voice of Professor Jack Gladney- Professor of Hitler Studies at a made-up liberal arts college somewhere in the industrial mid-west.  If I'm not mistaken, Gladney always wears full robes and dark glasses when he is on campus, a solid indication of the satirical intent of almost every aspect of White Noise.  Satirical yes, funny no, or at least not so much nearly 35 years down the road.

  The various bits that have made it from White Noise into our larger popular culture: Professor of Hitler Stories, the Airborne Toxic Event (which is now a band), detailed descriptive passages about shopping in a super market as a carefully considered aesthetic event are more like the literary equivalent of Simpsons-esque site gags then milestones in late 20th century American literature.  DeLillo is clearly writing in the high era of white-suburban privilege, where a novel about unhappy academic-intellectuals could capture the second highest prize in American literature with nary a nod to "different view points" or "diversity."  DeLillo, alongside Auster and Franzen are the last generation of this half-smugly satisfied half-perpetually anxiety riven literature of white, male privilege. 

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