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Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….





The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?

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?

Request for Information from the Readership

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Need some help with a project at work. 

Looking to assemble a fast-and-dirty reading list for laymen that deals with the following topics:

Social intelligence, Emotional self-regulation, Emotion and learning, De-escalation of conflict, Attention, Self-Efficacy

Interested in both academic (for reference) and middlebrow (for distribution) titles, particularly those that contain interpersonal strategies and organizational culture angles. Links to journal or magazine articles or whatever else you deem useful will also be appreciated.

Fire away, the more the better.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach?: Coerr’s The Eagle and the Bear Outline

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here is something for the learned readership to chew on.

As you are probably all aware, in the hard sciences it is common for research papers to be the product of large, multidiciplinary, teams with, for example, biochemists working with physicists, geneticists, bioinformatics experts, mathematicians and so on. In the social sciences and humanities, not so much. Traditional disciplinary boundaries and methodological conservatism often prevail or are even frequently the subject of heated disputes when someone begins to test the limits of academic culture

I’m not sure why this has to be so for any of us not punching the clock in an ivory tower.

The organizer of the Boyd & Beyond II Conference, Stan Coerr, a GS-15 Marine Corps, Colonel Marine Corps Reserve and Iraq combat veteran, several years ago, developed a very intriguing analytical outline of thirty years of Afghan War, which I recommend that you take a look at:

The Eagle and the Bear: First World Armies in Fourth World Insurgencies by Stan Coerr


There are many potential verges for collaboration in this outline – by my count, useful insights can be drawn by from the following fields:

Military History
Strategic Studies
Security Studies
COIN Theory
Operational Design
Diplomatic History
Soviet Studies
Intelligence History
International Relations
Area Studies
Islamic Studies
Military Geography
Network Theory

I’m sure that I have missed a few.

It would be interesting to crowdsource this doc a little and get a discussion started. Before I go off on a riff about our unlamented Soviet friends, take a look and opine on any section or the whole in the comments section.

The Lion of Judah, Jesus and Jihad

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron – a meander from Narnia via Roke and the stars to Jihad –  too religious, perhaps, or too literary — a lightweight post of no significance ]

illustration credit: Pauline Baynes

In my previous post, I quoted the prophet and apostle Bill Harmon:

We are about to move from the dispensation of grace to the dispensation of dominion. We are about to see Jesus, not as the suffering lamb that was slain, but the roaring Lion who is King!

Dominion is a keyword that’s getting a lot of attention right now – it has significantly different meanings for different strands in the theological mix — but as usual I’m at least as interested in the symbols and imagery people use as I am in their doctrinal expressions.

This post, then, will explore the imagery of the Lion.


Having recently written that post with the Harmon quote from 1999, I was struck to read the following account on the Elijah list just yesterday :

I had a profound encounter recently before going to bed. I think it is just like God to get you right before you fall asleep. I had to get out of bed to make a record of this! I felt it important to share with you. We see Jesus in many different expressions in the Scriptures. He is the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Lord of Hosts, the Angel of the Lord and many other looks. But one night recently He came to me as the Lion who is ready to roar. As you read, ask the Lord to reveal this aspect of His nature in your life.

I had a vision where I found myself on the back of this giant Lion with a huge mane. Then I realized it was the Lord. As the Lion turned His head, I could see His mouth open as if He was getting ready to roar. It is time to ride on the Lion of Judah. It is as if He has been waiting for this season. There is something fresh and new in the air. The breath of His mouth will destroy the enemy.

In this vision I was also running my fingers through the mane of the Lion. This represents the intimacy with God that is the foundation for our authority. Our intimacy is for a purpose – it is to establish the Kingdom of God for the King. The Lion is symbolic in that it is the “King of the Jungle”. The world is that jungle. Jesus is coming as the Lion to rule in the jungle bringing His power to set people free.

The Lord carries us into that jungle with His authority. When we are riding on the Lion we can be assured that we will succeed in all He calls us to do. He is massive, larger than life. He is ready to conquer and demonstrate His power.

In my encounter, I was suddenly on this Lion and He was of full age and postured for action. This will be a time where God will do things suddenly. It will take us by surprise. The sons of the Kingdom will advance the Kingdom for His purposes and with His power.

John Belt, Live In His Presence Ministries


To be honest, it strikes me that that’s straight out of CS Lewis and his wonderful books for children – but without Lewis’ grace as a writer. Compare:

That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the jingle of the bits and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or gray or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs, but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.

— CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (illustration above by Pauline Baynes)

That captures the “riding the Lion” idea a great deal more powerfully, and it’s imaginative fiction.


The other idea present in Belt’s narrative is the Lion’s roar. Again, it seems to me that what Belt offers us is a less gracious version of Lewis, who wrote:

The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody] either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia. Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine.”

It was of course the Lion’s voice.

— CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew


Commenting on Lewis’ version of the Lion’s roar, Paul Ford writes:

This passage is remarkable for the intense breath image and the addition of the fire image (from the first conferral of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament on Pentecost; see the Acts of the Apostles 2:3-4).

— Paul F. Ford, Companion to Narnia

With in turn refers us to this passage:

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

— Acts 2:3-4


TS Eliot was notably moved by the same passage, and we can see how a poet deals with the same wind and fire in one of the final sections of “Little Gidding”:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

— TS Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets


It’s the wind of inspiration that brings tongues of flame here, many tongues, many languages…

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

John 3:8

And the Greek is really quite wonderful here, as Phillip Comfort among others points out

In John 3:8, there is a metaphor which is purposefully polyvalent, in that Jesus was speaking of wind, spirit, and breath at the same time (inasmuch as pneuma can mean all three)

Philip Comfort, Encountering the manuscripts: an introduction to New Testament paleography, p 235

And circling back for a moment to CS Lewis — because there is really only one universe of discourse…

It must always be remembered … that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.

CS Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p 365


I said earlier that CS Lewis’ writing seemed to me to have notably more grace than John Belt’s — and I think that grace has to do with the theological virtue of the same name too, that beauty is an indicator of Grace if you like.

Here’s another author, also writing for children, whose prose is a marvel of purity — describing the music of the stars of which Lewis also spoke — Ursula Le Guin:

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

Ursula Le Guin, Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula would, I think, describe herself as a Taoist: the traditions may differs, grace is still grace.


Well, you might not think it would be easy to get from Narnia and CS Lewis to jihad in a single bound, but it has been done, and Jarret Brachman posted the proof a while back…

The jihadist propaganda lion:


was in fact swiped from the Narnia lion:


— as Brachman elegantly demonstrated:


all three images credit: Jarret Brachman, Cronus Global


Well, that’s funny — but not uplifting.

So I’ll leave you with another flight — that of the king of the birds this time in the words of Isaiah:

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31

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