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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?

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.




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.

An English game

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — image and Sotheby’s cataloguing via Michael Robinson ]

Carl Jung told his friend Sir Laurens van der Post:

One of the most striking testimonies to the quality of the English spirit is the English love of sport and games in a classical sense and their genius for inventing games.


Exempli gratia:

Pooh Stcks


Catalog entry:

Shepard, E.H.

Illustration for Chapter six of ‘The House at Pooh Corner,’ the episode “in which Pooh invents a new game and Eeyore joins in.” The game is ‘Poohsticks.’ Sold this morning: £314,500 (US$492,727)

Shepard, Ernest H. (10 December 1879 – 24 March 1976)
188 by 148mm, original ink drawing,
signed “EHShepard” lower left.


For those who don’t know the game, here’s the relevant excerpt from The House at Pooh Corner:

Pooh had just come to the bridge; and not looking where he was going, he tripped over something, and the fir-cone jerked out of his paw into the river. ‘Bother,’ said Pooh, as it floated slowly under the bridge, and he went back to get another fir-cone which had a rhyme to it. But then he thought that he would just look at the river instead, because it was a peaceful sort of day, so he lay down and looked at it, and it slipped slowly away beneath him, and suddenly, there was his fir-cone slipping away too.

‘That’s funny,’ said Pooh. ‘I dropped it on the other side,’ said Pooh, ‘and it came out on this side! I wonder if it would do it again?’ And he went back for some more fir-cones. It did. It kept on doing it. Then he dropped two in at once, and leant over the bridge to see which of them would come out first; and one of them did; but as they were both the same size, he didn’t know if it was the one which he wanted to win, or the other one. So the next time he dropped one big one and one little one, and the big one came out first, which was what he had said it would do, and the little one came out last, which was what he had said it would do, so he had won twice … and when he went home for tea, he had won thirty-six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was – that he had – well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that’s what he was. Instead of the other way round.

And that was the beginning of the game called Poohsticks, which Pooh invented, and which he and his friends used to play on the edge of the Forest. But they played with sticks instead of fir-cones, because they were easier to mark.’

Brief brief: religion and story

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — the bookstore in a church, spirituality in the movies, and the church in a mosque ]

Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore 602


There’s a recent post in the New Statesman titled The books of revelations: why are novelists turning back to religion?.

It seems to me that’s a difficult topic to prove or disprove, since it depends on which novelists you read before debating it, and perhaps even what your criteria for excellence in writing might be. I read very few novels these days, and tend to confine myself to those whose language, sentence by sentence, gives me joy to equal that of a topic I enjoy. John Fowles did that for me, John Le Carré, and most recently Ann Patchett with Bel Canto.

Are they turning back to religion? If they are, I haven’t noticed.

But then the novel isn’t where I go for story in any case, and if I suspect there’s a better medium to check in on, film would be my next choice up — and yes, Tarkovsky‘s The Sacrifice, even his Nostalghia — not to mention his Andrei Roublev — definitely yes. Kurosawa? Not so much: in his films it’s more a case of “all human life is there”.


This quote, from Adrei Tarkovsky’s Cinema of Spirituality, may be helpful:

In the entire history of cinema there has never been a director, who has made such a dramatic stand for the human spirit as did Andrei Tarkovsky. Today, when cinema seems to have drowned in a sea of glamorized triviality, when human relationships on screen have been reduced to sexual intrigue or sloppy sentimentality, and baseness rules the day – this man appears as a lone warrior standing in the midst of this cinematic catastrophe, holding up the banner for human spirituality.

What puts this director in a class all his own and catapults his films onto a height inaccessible to other filmmakers? It is, first and foremost, his uncompromising stance that man is a SPIRITUAL being. This may appear to be self-evident to some, and yet it is just on this very point that 99% of cinema fails. Man’s spirituality is quickly and conveniently pushed aside in favor of other more “exciting” topics: man’s sexuality, man’s psychology, sociology and so on. In today’s cinema, if spirituality is dealt with at all, it is never treated as the foundation of our existence, but is there as an appendage, something the characters concern themselves with in their spare time. In other words, while in other films spirituality may be PART of the plot, in Tarkovsky’s films it IS the plot; it permeates the very fabric of his films. It can be said that his films vibrate with his own spirituality. As he himself states, in all of his films the main characters undergo a SPIRITUAL crisis.


Whether sticking a stylish set of bookshelves and other trimmings in a beautiful old church should have won the Lensvelt de Architect prize in 2007 to the designers who added the bookshelves to an already stunning edifice is an interesting question. Is the beauty theirs, or borrowed? Have they incorporated the old church into “their” bookshop?

I think, too, of the Mezquita in Cordoba, with a cathedral dropped into the heart of it:

Mezquita_de_Córdoba aerial view

His Catholic Majesty King Charles V of Castile and Aragon said of this:

They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.


Is there an aesthetic principle we might consider here?

The Japanese haiku master Basho was once approached by his pupil Kikaku, who showed him this verse:

I remove the wings
A pea pod!

Quickly Basho wrote in response and mild correction:

A pea pod
I place wings on it
A dragonfly!

Poetry, in Basho’s view, should lift us from the lesser to the greater, not bring the greater down to a lesser level. It’s an interesting concept, and one with wide potential application beyond the sphere of the arts.


Or — let’s cut the architects, Merkx+Girod, some slack, because the bookstore is indeed quite stunning! I love bookstores, yes, and I love cathedrals.

Is the whole thing, perhaps, a DoubleQuote in stone and stories?

New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

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