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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?

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.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

Book Review: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski 

Recent cyber problems here at ZP (as well as work commitments) have left me with an enormous backlog of book-related posts and reviews with which to wade through this month, including re-starting the aborted “friends of zenpundit.com who wrote books” posts.  Here is the first of what hopefully should be many posts to help readers add to their antilibrary:
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I recently picked up Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by journalist Andrew Nagorski and found it to be an enjoyable read. Nagorski is telling the tale of Americans in Germany, predominantly journalists and diplomats, who witnessed the death of the Weimar Republic  at the hands of the Nazis and the subsequent construction of the totalitarian Third Reich under the messianic leadership of Adolf Hitler. It is, to be sure, a cautionary tale that is well-known at a superficial level where “Munich” – the 1938 diplomatic agreement where British and French leaders surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s aggressive designs – is a shorthand today for ill-considered appeasement of dictatorial regimes.

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That said, the deep reluctance of American officials and the public back home to acknowledge intellectually the nature of Nazi Germany and the threat it represented at the time, to the frustration of reporters like William Shirer, is less familiar and too often acknowledged only sheepishly – perhaps because the same “see no evil” pattern was replicated in regard to Stalin’s Russia until well after WWII ended. Indeed, one of the book’s more pathetic figures, Martha Dodd,  the irresponsible party-girl daughter of the American ambassador, transitioned seamlessly from being an enthusiastic useful idiot for Nazism to a slavishly loyal Stalinist and lifelong Soviet agent. A phenomena that mirrored that of many young German men who in the latter years of the Weimar Republic found themselves shifting between Communist fighting groups and membership in the Nazi SA without any democratic or liberal waystation in between.

Some thoughts about Hitlerland in no particular order:

  • Nagorski, like most journalists, is an excellent writer and more skilled at weaving a story than are most historians. Hitlerland is extremely “readable” for the general layman who is the target audience of the author.
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  • If you are well read enough on the subject of the Third Reich to be familiar with Nagorski’s major primary sources you will not see much that is original here as the same texts have been relied upon very heavily by many other writers and historians of the Nazi period. I learned only a few details or anecdotes that were new to me. What Nagorski did that is new is to bring together the stories of the Americans in Germany into one book for a synthesis and explained it smoothly and concisely.
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  • One of the more famous of the primary sources, Dr. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who wrote a memoir about Hitler and was a very early (if minor) member of the Nazi Party leadership, a P.R. mentor and court jester of sorts to Adolf Hitler, is given close scrutiny. Nagorski brings out the more sinister and machiavellian side of Hanfstaengl, whose ability to charm and play the clown and his influential Harvard connections helped him escape any kind of punishment for his numerous contributions toward Hitler’s regime.
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  • The inescapability of street level Nazi brutality, the crude and fanatical anti-semitism and the increasing enthusiasm of the German people, even relative anti-Nazi Germans, for accepting the regime’s propaganda claims with credulity after years of being submerged in them is an excellent feature of Hitlerland. Propaganda does damage simply by crowding out truth, even when it is not believed.

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Recommended.

Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?


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