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Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

Of actionable and inactionable intelligence

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — nutshell version: strategy should precede tactics as contemplation precedes action ]
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action should be founded on contemplation robert mcnamara

**

Let me grab a quick quote from page 4 of Dr. Rob Johnston‘s Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study, and launch from there:

Warner reviews and synthesizes a number of previous attempts to define the discipline of intelligence and comes to the conclusion that “Intelligence is secret state activity to understand or influence foreign entities.”

Warner’s synthesis seems to focus on strategic intelligence, but it is also logically similar to actionable intelligence (both tactical and operational) designed to influence the cognition or behavior of an adversary.

**

Look, I’m an amateur reading professional materials, but what I sense here is a distinction between “actionable” and “strategic intelligence” — which for my purposes as a confirmed Taoist might semi-tongue-in-cheek be called “inactionable intelligence” and be done with it.

But of course while “inactionable intelligence” is certainly intelligence, it is by no means inactionable in any real sense. It is simply actionable at a different level or altitude, one more rareified if you will, closer to the needs of policy makers than those in the field, background hum to the vivid and pressing urgencies and exigencies of battle.

Let me take, from my reading when I began this post a week ago, and without giving them undue priority over a thousand such pieces that you or I might find, three headlines to illustrate my point:

  • American Conservative: COIN Is a Proven Failure; America risks shoveling more troops into Iraq to replicate a strategy that never worked in the first place
  • EmptyWheel: Over $80 Billion Wasted in “Training” Iraqi, Afghan Forces: No Lessons Learned
  • Informed Comment: Iraq Fail: Shiite Gov’t asks Sunni tribe to fight ISIL, but Sentences Politician from Tribe to Death
  • Agree or disagree with those three individual pieces as you may, each in turn depicts a situation where it is not the single raid or drone strike, firefight or rescue attempt, but the wider grasp of a war and its nth-order ramifications that is at stake. And while having a clear grasp of such things (seeing them in a coup d’oeuil, perhaps?) may not save or kill at the individual, small group, immediate tactical level, it can save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, and perhaps even avert entire wars and their deranged after-effects, acting as what I’ll call “actionable wisdom” at higher altitude.

    **

    So we have the proposition: true inactionable intelligence is insightful actionable wisdom.

    Now here’s the thing: everyone knows that actionable intelligence is useful — it is almost something you can touch or see — it gives meaning to the view in a sniper’s scope, it is visceral, present, immediate, concrete, practical.

    By comparison, the high contextual intelligence I am calling “actionable wisdom” is more remote, theoretical, abstract — less tangible, less, let’s face it, sexy than “actionable intelligence”.

    Yet it has a wider and deeper reach, and the potential to offer far more positive outcomes and save far more lives.

    **

    I often refer to Castoriadis‘ quote about how different philosophy would be if our paradigm for a “real object” in consiering what reality is was Mozart‘s Requiem rather than a kitchen table — a table seems more real than music, munitions more real than morale — but are they?

    Or to put that another way — and I’m serious, if mildly metaphorical, in repurposing Stalin‘s quote — How many divisions has the Battle Hymn of the Republic?

    As many as it brings courage to, would be my answer.

    **
    **
    **

    Footnoting that McNamara quote: It’s from Robert S. McNamara in Conversations with History, starting from the question at the 11.21 mark onwards. Here’s a more detailed transcript:

    At times I think there is a tension between what you call contemplation and action. But I think there’s less tension than most people believe, and I myself believe a person of action, or let’s say an administrator if you will, should put more weight on contemplation, what you call contemplation, should put more weight on establishing values in his mind, establishing goals and objectives, for himself, for his organization, and those he’s associated with. Let me phrase it very simplistically: I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between a soft heart and hard head. In a sense, I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between contemplation and action. Action should be founded on contemplation, and those of us who act don’t put enough time, don’t give enough emphasis, to contemplation.

    After a discussion of his role introducing safety features in the 1950s auto industry, he continues:

    There’s no contradiction between what I call a soft heart and a hard head, or there’s no contradiction between what I’ll call social values on the one hand and a firm’s financial strength and sustainability on the other – that’s really what I was first trying to prove to myself and then trying to prove to others.

    The Second Coming: insight as fact and poetry

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — witnessing the second and third order effects of the blood-dimmed tide, almost a century later ]
    .

    Something which identifies itself as “Fact” apparently says:

    I submit that “Poetry” said it better:

    **

    Let’s give Yeats’ comment a little of its context:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;

    The whole poem, The Second Coming, is a notoriously difficult one, and almost demands that one read the poet’s A Vision (perhaps both the 1925 first and 1937 second versions) — and yet the eight opening lines — such insight, such power:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    **

    Where does one turn for hope in such a world as Yeats, writing in 1919, just short of a century ago, both saw and foresaw?

    What if the best regain conviction?

    Grothendieck’s mathematics and Child Born of Water

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — two approaches to mathematics, two types of heroism, and their respective complementarities ]
    .

    I wish to propose a clear analogy between the mathematician Grothendieck‘s two styles of approach to a problem in mathematics, and the Navajo Twin Gods, Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water.

    **

    Twins

    **

    Steve Landsburg‘s post, The Generalist, compares two approaches to mathematics, as practiced by two eminent mathematicians:

    If there was a nut to be opened, Grothendieck suggested, Serre would find just the right spot to insert a chisel, he’d strike hard and deftly, and if necessary, he’d repeat the process until the nut cracked open. Grothendieck, by contrast, preferred to immerse the nut in the ocean and let time pass. “The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months — when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough.”

    **

    In the paras leading up to this one, Landsburg gives us the insight that these two approaches can be generalized as “zooming in” and “zooming out”:

    Imagine a clockmaker, who somehow has been oblivious all his life to many of the simple rules of physics. One day he accidentally drops a clock, which, to his surprise, falls to the ground. Curious, he tries it again—this time on purpose. He drops another clock. It falls to the ground. And another.

    Well, this is a wondrous thing indeed. What is it about clocks, he wonders, that makes them fall to the ground? He had thought he’d understood quite a bit about the workings of clocks, but apparently he doesn’t understand them quite as well as he thought he did, because he’s quite unable to explain this whole falling thing. So he plunges himself into a deeper study of the minutiae of gears, springs and winding mechanisms, looking for the key feature that causes clocks to fall.

    It should go without saying that our clockmaker is on the wrong track. A better strategy, for this problem anyway, would be to forget all about the inner workings of clocks and ask “What else falls when you drop it?”. A little observation will then reveal that the answer is “pretty much everything”, or better yet “everything that’s heavier than air”. Armed with this knowledge, our clockmaker is poised to discover something about the laws of gravity.

    Now imagine a mathematician who stumbles on the curious fact that if you double a prime number and then halve the result, you get back the number you started with. It works for the prime number 2, for 3, for 5, for 7, for 11…. . What is it about primes, the mathematician wonders, that yields this pattern? He begins delving deeper into the properties of prime numbers…

    Like our clockmaker, the mathematician is zooming in when he should be zooming out. The right question is not “Why do primes behave this way?” but “What other numbers behave this way?”. Once you notice that the answer is all numbers, you’ve got a good chance of figuring out why they behave this way. As long as you’re focused on the red herring of primeness, you’ve got no chance.

    Now, not all problems are like that. Some problems benefit from zooming in, others from zooming out. Grothendieck was the messiah of zooming out — zooming out farther and faster and grander than anyone else would have dared to, always and everywhere. And by luck or by shrewdness, the problems he threw himself into were, time after time, precisely the problems where the zooming-out strategy, pursued apparently past the point of ridiculousness, led to spectacular, unprecedented, indescribable success. As a result, mathematicians today routinely zoom out farther and faster than anyone prior to Grothendieck would have deemed sensible. And sometimes it pays off big.

    **

    I no longer have — alas — a copy of Where the Two Came to their Father, the first volume in the Bollingen Series, with its suite of 18 sand paintings beautifully rendered in silkscreen by Maud Oakes, but their respective black and blue colorations lead me to suppose that the illustration at the head of this post, taken rom that series, shows the twin heroes, Monster Slayer (black) and Child Born of Water (blue) whose journeys and initiation are the subject of the rituasl “sing” recorded in that book.

    The theme of two male hero twins is central to the mythologies of the American continent, according to Jospeh Campbell, who contributed a commentary to Oakes’ recording of Jeff King‘s performance of this ceremony, and lacking both the King > Oakes > Campbell book and Gladys Reichard‘s two volumes on Navaho Religion, I must draw on brief quotes from miscellaneous web sources to dramatize the differences between the twins.

    Monster Slayer is the doer of deeds, similar in nature to other masculine, not to say macho, heroes — while Child Born of Water is the contemplative of the pair:

    The Sun [Jóhonaa’éí] gave them prayersticks and then told them that the younger of the two (Born for Water) would sit watching these prayersticks while the older (Monster Slayer) went out to kill the monsters. If these prayersticks began to burn, this would signal that his brother was in danger and that he should go to him to help.

    Reichard explains:

    Monster Slayer (na’ye’ ne’zyani) (I) represents impulsive aggression, whereas Child-of-the-water represents reserve, caution, and thoughtful preparation.

    A measure of their respective strategies, and of the ways in which the insights of Child Born of Water can succeed where the brute force tactics of Monster SLayer fail, can be gleaned from this section of their story, also I believe taken from Reichard:

    When The Twins visited Sun the second time, he said he was willing to help them, but this time he wanted them to return the favor: “I wish you to send your mother to the west that she may make a new home for me.” Whereupon Monster Slayer, believing himself equal to any task, replied, “I will do so.I will send her there.” Then Child-of-the-water reminded them both: “No, Changing Woman is subject to no one? we cannot make promises for her. She must speak for herself? she is her own mistress. But I shall tell her your wishes and plead for you.”

    **

    One commentator glibly suggests that the joint presentation of the hero as twins is “a clever reminder that progress depends upon cooperation between our mind and our heart” — but the psychologist Dr Howard Teich offers a far more depthful interpretation: that the two twins represent two forms of masculine heroism, one the familiar macho hero of war movies, and the other wiser and subtler, the possessor of traits commonly attributed to the feminine — and hugely undervalued — in our culture.

    Dr Teich suggests we must (urgently) abandon the division of virtues into “male” and “female” types, reognize that these types are complementary rather than rivalrous, that both are necessary functions of both males’ and females’ psyches, and begin to integrate the wholeness that both strategies together represent, in our own approaches to our lives in general, to the natural world around us, and indeed to warfare — unsurprisingly, since we first encounter the twins in the ceremonial specifically devised by the Navajo to protect young warriors on their way to battle, and to reintegrate them in harmony and balance on their return.

    As Teich puts it:

    Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, as these Twin Heroes are called, are the most sacred of all the legendary heroes in Navaho mythology. It is rare for the Navaho even to speak of the twins; their presence is to be felt rather than observed, and their lessons absorbed rather than applied. Although the lessons the twins hold may be countless, their particular manifestation of a deeper, more complex image of masculinity deserves the reader’s especial attention.

    **

    I’d like to suggest that in the same way that there are “zooming in” and “zooming out” styles in mathematics, and “monster-slayer” and “born of water” styles of heroism, there are in fact twin traditions of understanding the world which we might term scientific and poetic, or in Teich’s terms — and those of the alchemists — solar and lunar.

    A unified or “solunary” vision will encompass the virtues of both.

    **

    Dr Teich’s review of the King > Oakes > Campbell book under the title A Dual Masculinity was irst piublished in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1995. He now has a book out treating these themes: Solar Light, Lunar Light.

    Oh, and please don’t expect me to know anything more about Grothendieck’s mathematics than I read in Landsburg’s article.

    Of border crossings, and the pilgrimage to Arbaeen in Karbala

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — as one headline put it, 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala ]
    .

    You may remember IS / Daesh bulldozing the berm separating Syria and Iraq (upper image, below) not so long ago:

    SPEC border crossings

    Putting that into perspective is this image from the border between Iran and Iraq (lower image, above), as millions of pilgrims queue up there on their way to Karbala for Arbaeen, the final day of the Shia’s forty days mourning for Imam Hussein.

    **

    At a time when the sectarian anti-Shia brutalities of Daesh / IS are capturing the attention of many in the west, the presence of Christian priests participating in the Arbaeen proceedings (upper panel, below)) echoes Pope Francis’ recent gesture in offering his prayers in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul:

    SPEC christians at arba'een

    The enormous turnout for Arbaeen in Karbala this year — those gathering at the shrine are reported to number 17.5 million (lower panel, above) — can be seen as a mark of Shia solidarity and devotion in the face of possible violence from Sunni jihadists.

    **

    One tweeter posted this image of a road sign seen along the pilgrimage route early in the forty-day period of mourning:

    If it rains Daesh, we will still visit Hussein

    The sign reads: If it rains Daesh, still we will visit Hussein!

    **

    Sources:

  • Guardian: Isis breach of Iraq-Syria border merges two wars into one ‘nightmarish reality’
  • Iraq Live Update: Iran-Iraq border crossing … Millions queue to go Karbala

  • Shafaqna: Christian priests in the holy shrine of Imam Hussein (AS)
  • Iraq Live Update: Largest prayer congregation in the world

  • IB Times: 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala for Arbaeen

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