Tag Archive for: jsullivan

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids by Scott Hershovitz

At the risk of alienating some readers right from the jump, I’ll go ahead and say that having children in your life is a blast, especially during the toddler years. My son and daughter are well past this age, but I revered being a part of their daily soaking up the world anew. All children are naturally curious of course. And all parents are exquisitely charged with introducing the world to them. It often feels just as much to our benefit as it is to theirs. For we too see the world anew and try to hold back any reflexive jadedness.
Scott Hershovitz, author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids, more than runs with his children’s curiosity: He’s teaching them how to think. Granted, when I first stumbled upon this book, I was dubious, thinking it would be too cute by half. You know, one of those “look at me as I try to learn/teach something with/to my kids and end up making a royal mess of it, all in an attempt to be humorous” books. But then I read the introduction. Hershovitz is a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan and clearly divulges his intent. “This book is inspired by kids, but it’s not for them. In fact, kids are my Trojan horse. I’m not after young minds. I’m after yours.” After reading that, I was all in.
Hershovitz maintains that all kids are philosophers not only because they ask “why” a whole heck of a lot but also from their need to know what’s in your mind. When your young daughter, for instance, asks what the color red looks like to you, she’s unknowingly carrying forward seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke’s shifted color spectrum question. She’s trying to make sense of what she sees by asking how you see it. It’s a deep question because she’s not only trying to understand her own consciousness but yours as well. As we get older, Hershovitz says we tend to stop asking such questions because we stopped seeing them as viable questions to ask. Given the difficulty—perhaps even the ineffability—of conveying what we experience, it’s understandable that we stop asking. Yet doing so trucks a price: often not understanding each other.
As a philosophy professor, Hershovitz is well poised to lead his young sons in practicing philosophy. He’s constantly asking them questions so that they have to think and reason through, well, just about everything. (A few times I thought, “Maybe ease up a little, yeah?”) But, as he said, the conversations he has with his kids are the set up for the broader topics. Thankfully, the exchanges are often humorous. (If you do pick up the book, you’ll behold a fair amount of cursing. Not only does Hershovitz admit that he curses freely, he makes the case for it. To wit: studies showing better group cohesion when cursing is allowed; also, people are better able to withstand physical pain when in the act of cursing. He has a whole chapter on language.)
In the chapter on “rights,” Hershovitz introduces a rather famous contemporary philosophical puzzle: the Trolley Problem. It goes like this. A runaway trolley car is careening down the track and will certainly kill five oblivious rail workers farther down. But you happen to be standing by the switch that can divert the car down another track. Unfortunately, there’s one worker on that track who will be killed if you, the Bystander at the Switch, redirect the trolley. What do you do? Allow five to die, or save five by actively killing one? Pose the question to whomever. I asked my teen-aged kids and found out that my 14-year-old already knew of the puzzle. So it didn’t take long for “what ifs” to fly. What if you knew the one solitary worker had a terminal illness? Would knowing this change your decision? What if one of the workers was a beloved relative (or a sworn enemy)? The broader question here is what rights do all of these workers have as they relate to your actions? “When you have a right, someone else has an obligation,” says Hershovitz. However, as we know, defining rights and obligations can be a tenuous endeavor. Yet they can’t be ignored. It’s why we debate such things as bioethics and the rules of war.
One day, one of Hershovitz’s sons confided that he was called a floofer doofer by a preschool classmate. (No one knows what a floofer doofer is. What is known, ostensibly, is that you don’t want to be called one.) While the details are sketchy, Hershovitz’s son retaliated in some fashion as he received a mild scolding from his teacher. Hershovitz did not scold his son nor lecture him about avoiding the temptation to retaliate. He has little use for the old saw “two wrongs don’t make a right.” To him, not only can the second wrong “set things right,” it probably shouldn’t even be called a wrong at all. The second wrong could, in fact, be called justice. It’s why we have a legal system, notes Hershovitz, who is also a law professor at Michigan. (He clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) He makes the case that, broadly speaking, “litigation is the best substitute for revenge.” And it can do double duty: rule against the wrongdoer and send a message to others that said wrongdoing will not be tolerated.
If this sounds basic and obvious, recall that Hershovitz is asking us to revisit concepts upon which we’ve set as our foundation, providing just enough conceptual history to add continuity. For instance, we learn of Aristotle’s thoughts on justice and Immanuel Kant’s theory on rights. This helps with understanding our institutions along with our more prosaic daily interactions. The questions start as basic, sure, but the answers are certainly not always obvious. Or, an answer may at first seem obvious to you but not to me. It’s not that I don’t understand your answer. I just have a few questions for how you arrived at the answer. And then we’re off.
As the book progresses, other traditional philosophical ideas are briefly explored, such as knowledge and truth. In the wrong hands, this thorough fare could be an arid one. But Hershovitz knows his audience and keeps it relatable. He describes, for example, how René Descartes’ theory of justified true belief once ruled the day among philosophers and for quite some time. You know something because you are justified in believing it true. But then, in 1963, a little known philosopher by the name of Edmund Gettier published a brief paper that upended this theory. Here’s my mashed-up version of his counterexample. You own a copy of Infinite Jest by the (great) David Foster Wallace. You’ve picked it up and read from it many times. You can even visualize where it sits on your bookshelf. Therefore, you are justified in believing that a copy of Infinite Jest is in your house. Indeed, there is a copy in your house. But here’s what you don’t know. Your spouse loaned out your copy to someone a few weeks ago. This someone then lost it. But then someone else just so happened to buy you a copy for your birthday (thinking you didn’t own it already) and mailed it to you. It’s sitting, wrapped, on your dining room table. Gettier would argue that you just got lucky there’s a copy in your house. But you actually didn’t know there was a copy in your house.
If the title of Hershovitz’s book sounds familiar, it comes from seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that with the absence of government, humans are back in the state of nature, where life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” And regarding government, Hershovitz makes the case that it’s not perceived oppressive governmental entities one needs to worry about (in the U.S. anyway). To him, legally speaking, it’s your employer. And there’s much else he covers, such as Cartesian dualism (back to Descartes again) and the subsequent “the ghost in the machine” derision that eventually followed.
Speaking of dualism, there’s a bit of that in Hershovitz’s approach. On the one hand, he absolutely steps back so that his sons (and others) think through an idea without undue persuasion. Yet, on the other hand, there are times when he seems to positively relish ending a debate by bringing down his tremendous intellect.
Whether you regularly engage with children or not, Hershovitz’s book is a reminder that the study of philosophy is frequently an exploration of how much we don’t know. And that’s okay. Often, through the process of learning what we don’t know, we actually learn quite a lot.

Find in Catalog

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World by Riley Black

It’s something we know without recalling perhaps when and where we learned it: The dinosaurs were taken out by an asteroid. (Well, the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. The avian dinosaurs—birds—made it.) The most famous of the Earth’s mass extinction events (its fifth), it happened around 66 million years ago. Without it, this very day could very easily still be in the age of the dinosaurs.
In The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, Riley Black not only takes us back to the impact event but also briskly carries us forward, from the first hour after the asteroid slammed into what is now known as the Yucatán Peninsula to one million years later. She shows us just what exactly the earth’s flora and fauna experienced, and would continue to experience, during this cataclysm. While other mass extinctions may have eliminated a higher percentage of the earth’s species, it took much longer (millions of years) to do so. The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction that Black details happened remarkably fast. It’s about as wild a ride as you can imagine: millions of years of evolution “undone in mere moments.”
Black notes that it’s important to understand the role the phenomenon known as contingency played. “Not all impacts are equal,” she says. The asteroid that smacked into Siberia about 35 million years ago was larger than the one from K-Pg. Yet it didn’t spur world-wide devastation. Impact angle and the type of rock receiving the space-punch mattered. So had the dinosaur-killing asteroid landed somewhere else on earth, conceivably the opportunities for mammals to climb atop the evolutionary ladder would not have materialized.
But it landed where it did. A “deadly crag,” it spanned about 7.5 miles across. And, traveling in excess of 44,000 mph, it was exceptionally fast. “If we were to stand at a single point and try to watch its passage, we would feel it rather than see it,” states Black. To make matters worse, it landed at a lethal 45-degree angle. There was instant vaporization where it hit coastal water. Tsunamis resulted, hundreds of feet high. Earthquakes spread. In present day Montana, dinosaurs there would have felt the impact in about fifteen minutes.
The earth, so violently shook, tossed up unfathomable amounts of dust and debris, darkening the sky. Billions of tons of sulfur and carbon dioxide were flung into the atmosphere. Then the debris started its descent, igniting fires. Any animal that could take shelter did of course. And if it could burrow, all the better. Climate change was almost immediate. Within the first day, fires engulfed the earth, a pure hellscape.
Already, just finding shelter above ground was proving futile. If an animal couldn’t dive into soil or water, it was in desperate straits. Temperatures climbed. This was a big problem for the gargantuan non-avian dinosaurs who were already prone to overheating. Black says it well and succinctly: “Evolution prepared them for the world of tomorrow, and perhaps the day after, but not for this.”
As the world burned, the debris created “a vast dome over the atmosphere.” Sunlight became scarce. This was the “impact winter,” a period of endless night. The days turned into years and then the acid rain started, slowly degrading the nutrients vegetation needs to grow.
One thousand years later the earth’s biodiversity was (surprise) greatly compromised, “shot through with gaps.” However, this created opportunities for the surviving organisms clinging to the happenstances they were dealt. Here’s one: Algae kept the oceans alive. Another one, going back to the first days after impact: The first primates could have perished (but did not of course) in the ubiquitous tree fires. (Black also notes that ferns, “a disaster taxon,” did very well during the recovery.)
One hundred thousand years after impact the earth was shaking off the coldness of winter, the forests growing higher. As we move to one million years, flowering plants proliferated, which in turn burgeoned insects. And as Black points out, such insects were a boon to primates, as they provided a source of nourishment.
Throughout the book, Black’s fascination with dinosaurs is palpable. She strikes me as a dinosaur-loving kid who grew up never having lost her wonder. And it’s as though she feels guilty they had to perish in order for her to exist and subsequently long for them. While most of us stop short of such longing, she does explain our collective intrigue of dinosaurs very well. We try to wrap our minds around the fact that such colossal creatures once ruled the earth and for such a long period of time. Whether gazing at their remains in a museum or watching a T-Rex redux chase down some poor human on screen, we can’t get enough. And to Black, it’s more than that. “Dinosaurs live again where our imagination touches bone, the consequences of impact creating a great, constantly unfolding puzzle in which the discovery of every new fossil feels like a victory. Against the odds, this creature was fossilized. And against the odds, we found it.”
Black soberly reminds us that, in the end, “extinction comes for all species,” the dinosaur fossils a “memento mori.” Dinosaurs were on earth for over 165 million years, yet they are long gone. And as we gaze up at their erected fossils, it’s natural to wonder what will become of us. Will we end by chance or by our own undoing? Either way, we know life, some form of life, will persist. Here’s Black, once again sharing her awe: “From the time life originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment.”

Find in Catalog

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

If you are of a certain age, you may recall Jonathan Franzen, even if you have yet to read his work. Think back to 2001, when Oprah selected Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club. This made the literary author decidedly uncomfortable. He publicly stated he considered himself from the “high-art literary tradition” and that so many of Oprah’s selections were “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” Displeased, Oprah promptly disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show. The story became fodder for cable news, so Franzen’s book sales were still assured. (An excellent novel, it would go on to win the National Book Award.)

His latest novel, Crossroads approaches masterpiece status. Franzen is brilliant and has clearly honed his writing so as to jettison what many thought were elements of a show-off from his earlier novels. Still, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it was for me.

It is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s, Russ and Marion Hildebrandt have four kids, their ages running the gamut. Russ is an associate minister who has been reassigned within his church after being ousted as head of the youth group he created, Crossroads. To add to his humiliation, two of his children subsequently join the group. Russ, who wants nothing to do with his wife, is pursuing a widowed church member; it’s somewhat comedic while simultaneously being all-the-way sad.

Each of the children is struggling in their own way. Clem, away at college, is about to drop out so as to attempt enlistment in the Vietnam War. Becky, as popular as they get in high school, is becoming increasingly intrigued with the counterculture. Then we have Perry, a high school sophomore, a genius, a drug dealer, and an addict. His “manner is seemingly forthright and respectful but somehow neither.”

Perry joins Crossroads as a contrivance, emoting in group sessions. “Because it was a game, he was good at it, and although intimacies achieved by game-theoretical calculation were hard to feel great about, he sensed that other people were genuinely moved by his emotional displays.” Becky sees through his ploy and promptly calls him out for not only manipulating the group but for also being a borderline loathsome person.

Marion, who has her own history of mental illness, is certainly worried for Perry’s mental well-being and for good reason. Russ, meanwhile, has delusions of grandeur by thinking he can save some Navajo land. Yet this is the same guy whose family is disintegrating right before his blinkered eyes.

In his novels, Franzen takes it to Midwesterners. (He was raised in St. Louis.) For all the mainstream “dontcha know” and “whelp!” jokes that are supposed to underscore some sort of Midwestern innocence, Franzen has consistently hit back with a grimmer take, where repressed feelings are dangerously mixed with silent hatreds; add, too, the prevalence of drug use (think methamphetamine).

But this is not to say that Crossroads is a satire on Midwestern church families. The characters are going through genuine moral crises. Treating them with care, Franzen makes their respective anguishes real.

Maybe all too real for this reviewer. Make no mistake, Franzen is in top form as his intellect fully surrounds the characters he builds and then topples. Make no mistake, too, you feel the characters’ plight. Franzen’s writing makes sure of that. It’s as though you’re lying down on the grass on the most pleasant of days, hands behind your head, watching the clouds pass by for hours. It’s gorgeous in its own way, with its grand unfurling. But every now and then you come across a thunderclap that emphasizes the devastation. Here’s Clem asking Russ: “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?”

Readers of John Updike will perhaps be reminded of In the Beauty of the Lilies, a gorgeous multi-generational novel, where the reader sees how one decision made by one person from one generation affects the next. There’s certainly an Updikean feel to “Crossroads.” However, here, the family members live their lives in one uneasy swirl and it’s an unnerving slow bleed (albeit humorous at times).

Apparently, Crossroads is the first of a planned trilogy entitled “A Key to All Mythologies.” (Readers of George Eliot’s Middlemarch will probably recognize the reference.) Knowing this, I’ll possibly give the second volume a go. For while I found Crossroads wrenching, there is hope for the Hildebrandts.

There’s plenty of hurt that results in various family fissures, yet they don’t give up on each other. Plus, Russ finally sees it: Sometimes we err and err badly, but we keep trying. “Turning and turning,” he says. “Until by turning and turning we come around right.”

Find in Catalog

Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

Pity the Middle Ages, so often derided as the dreary placeholder between the classical and modern eras. Or, worse, it’s a catchall for all things retrograde. Want to insult some people? Tell them that their ideas are from the Middle Ages or that their actions are medieval.

Dan Jones, author of Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages, argues this thousand-year period of history deserves more respect. Not only does he indeed make the case, he does so by taking us through a full millennium in just under 600 pages. Such an endeavor could have been a slog to read, but he managed to produce the exact opposite, organizing a potentially unwieldy topic into sections that are both informative and enjoyable. In fact, Jones’ enthusiasm for this period of history, coupled with his strong narration, reignites the Middle Ages and shows how it’s foundational to understanding the modern world.

The Middle Ages had to follow a show-stealing act, of course: the mighty Roman Empire, with its many accomplishments. But Romanization came after the Legions marched through a land and subjugated any given population. Quoting Virgil, Jones notes that one such task of a conquering Roman was to “battle down the proud.” So when we read of the barbarians on the move toward the end of Roman rule, we know that the Roman world had its many cruelties as well.

As an example of waning Roman power in the fifth century, Jones tells of the plight of a far-flung Roman territory: Britain. Invading Saxons prompted native chieftains to write a pleading letter to a Roman general. “The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians. Between these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned.” How was the letter received? It was labeled the “Groan of the Britons.” The Brits were on their own.

Huns stampeded westward, possibly—as tree ring data suggests—to escape a “megadrought.” Their movement and eventual demise prompted other tribes to wander and conquer. There’s a lot to take in, and only occasionally do you come across an arid sentence such as, “Meanwhile, across the Alps a barbarian group known as the Lombards…” The fact that a lackluster sentence stands out is meant as a compliment, for, again, it demonstrates that most of Jones’ narrative has some verve.

Jones smartly forms his chapters so that they can be optioned into standalone readings. You can jump past, say, the chapter on Byzantium and delve into the reading on the Arabs. And each chapter helps clarify the historical significance. Take the Arabs. The modern political map of the Middle East is illuminated by briefly reading its Middle Age history. Plus, during a time when post-Roman rule was being sorted out, the Arabs did their part by establishing houses of learning: libraries.

When Charlemagne, king of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor, died in the ninth century, he had unified most of central and western Europe. It didn’t last. But, as Jones points out, unification became the persistent dream of many, including Napoleon Bonaparte, “another irresistible warrior and accumulator.”

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I already knew that.” And no doubt many of you already know that Vikings founded the Kievan Rus on territory that now includes parts of Russia and Ukraine. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century shifted some power from Kiev to Moscow, a power dynamic that we all know is very much alive today.

Regardless of your historical familiarity, Jones does capital work in establishing a continuity that moves the history along. You have monks, plagues, crusaders, the rise of the merchant class, and the establishment of universities. On land, we have gothic architecture. On the sea, we have navigators in the process of opening up the world.

And, of course, we have knights. If you were to ask someone to word-associate the Middle Ages, “knights” would probably be a frequent choice. They, and their order of chivalry, live on in our imagination. Even today, receiving a knighthood in the United Kingdom is considered a great honor. Jones mentions that this imaginative spark was in the Middle-Ages mind as well, as evidenced “with a heroic new literature that painted knights as lovers and questers whose ethical code perfumed the dubious reality of the deeds.” There’s “The Song of Roland” from 1098. In the late 14th century, Chaucer gave the first tale in “The Canterbury Tales” to the knight. Arthurian legend even found its way to Richard the Lionheart, for on his way to the Third Crusade he claimed to brandish Arthur’s Excalibur.

With the Renaissance and the Reformation, we see both the rise of humanism and the power of individual action. Jones contends that quite a few of the names we associate with the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, for one) were products of the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, the medieval period was coming to an end.

Primarily this is a book of political history. A cultural reading into the lives of everyday individuals is not within its scope. (He does tell us that the average human existence “hovered somewhere just above terrible.”) But this does not mean the discussed individuals are presented as mere soulless entities in a thousand-year political disquisition.

Jones, for example, shares the ending of Gelimer, a vanquished sixth-century Vandal king. He and a couple thousand other Vandal prisoners were marched into Constantinople’s Hippodrome. A full crowd was in attendance as he was made to surrender his royal robes and to lie prone at the feet of Emperor Justinian. The Byzantine emperor was in his lofty perch, and Gelimer was no longer a royal ruler over anyone or anything. The fleeting nature of prestige and political power was apparently at the forefront of Gelimer’s mind, for he calmly, and repeatedly, quoted from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Find in Catalog

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Heist tales lend themselves well to a cinematic telling. The visuals are all there, from the hushed planning to the eye-darting execution. Sometimes you think the crew might just make it out with the goods. Other times you just know they are doomed from the start. But what of a heist novel? I didn’t think I had ever read one. This past summer, however, I knew this was about to change; for Colson Whitehead was set to publish Harlem Shuffle, a heist novel.
Whitehead is literary gold. He’s won the National Book Award and—count them—two Pulitzer’s. In The Underground Railroad, grim reality paired with magical realism to describe two slaves escaping a brutal Georgia plantation aboard an underground railroad system that’s literally an underground railroad, an antebellum allegory of fleeing slavery. Devastation continued in The Nickel Boys, which detailed the abuse in a Jim Crow-era reform school. Heavy reading, both.
Harlem Shuffle is a welcomed exhale. But it’s still a Colson Whitehead novel, so you would be safe in supposing that it’s both good and hard edged. It just has to be. And you would be right on both accounts.
We follow Ray Carney, the proprietor of a Harlem furniture store. It’s 1959 and Carney struggles to make the rent for his family. It doesn’t help that his in-laws treat him as though he’s beneath their daughter. Every interaction feels as though they are waiting for her to “wake up to the poverty of her choices.” Never mind that his mother died when he was young, thus leaving him to the whims of a neglectful father. His father was indeed a crook, but Ray learns one unintended lesson from him: “living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live.” And never mind that, despite all this, he earned a college degree. To them, he’s just a “rug peddler.”
Carney so badly wants to move his family out of their cramped, noisy apartment and onto a more respectable block that he often embarks on long walks just so he can gaze at coveted apartment buildings and dream. But, to be sure, he needs money for this to manifest. It helps that his cousin Freddie will occasionally show up at the furniture store with random stolen goods that Carney unloads for a cut. These are small risks with small payouts.
Freddie changes this risk/reward ratio by partnering with a hardened group of criminals. Their plan is to rob the Hotel Theresa, a Harlem icon. And it’s more than just about making a high-dollar score. Black Harlem residents like Carney’s in-laws live in a neighborhood called Strivers’ Row. This Harlem echelon, along with Theresa’s past reputation of Harlem sophistication, wore on some Harlem residents because they knew none of it was for them. Carney knows part of the reason his in-laws disapprove of him stems from the color of his skin. Even they think he’s too dark. This job would bring bourgeois “black Harlem down a notch.”
Not that Carney initially wants anything to do with it. He’s a furniture salesman, not a crook. It’s because of Freddie’s big mouth that these other criminals even know of Carney, that they think he’s the one to move the stolen Theresa jewelry via his merchant connections.
Carney has a choice to make, telling Freddie that he will sleep on it before he decides. “A night of Carney staring at the ceiling was enough to close the deal, the cracks up there like a sketch of the cracks in his self-control.” He grew up not wanting to be a crook, but he also can’t deny that he grew up surrounded by criminals and their lifestyles. Moving stolen goods provides a small thrill to an otherwise mundane life, “a zap-charge in his blood.” The heist goes down, and the rewards and repercussions are meted out according to streetwise maneuverings.
Years go by and we find a more prosperous Carney. The furniture store is doing well and he’s being courted by the elite Dumas Club, which restricts membership to Harlem’s professional class only. (Carney’s father-in-law is a member.) Yet even then, if Carney wants to get in, it’s going to be a decorous dance.
Carney also takes a second job: plotting and exacting revenge. This second job has him “keeping crooked hours,” going to sleep a little earlier and then waking up for the night work. “Midnight, rise and shine.” It’s an hour “when the con polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books.” And we have the pleasure of reading all about what he’s up to.
We end in 1964, with Harlem changing. All of New York City is changing. Whitehead takes us through the riot that happens that year, with Carney not only trying to protect his store but to keep order both with the choices he’s made and with the unpredictable actions of his various associations. Throughout the novel, this city is alive, its own character. We already know that some streets and establishments in the city are not for the faint of heart. It’s one thing to call them dangerous and potentially wild, but it’s much better to read how Whitehead writes them, as with this one bar: “The atmosphere in Nightbirds was ever five minutes after a big argument and no one telling you what happened.”
A lot goes on in Carney’s life, so it’s easy to miss that no one really knows him. His family is his one constant (aside from his store). Yet even when he’s with his wife and kids, he seems distant (partly because he keeps his criminal life secret). It’s not until the moments when he’s in imminent physical danger does he seem to yearn for them. During one instance when someone is pointing a pistol at him he thinks of “his sleeping wife and daughter on their safe bed. That little lifeboat aloft on the dark and churning Harlem sea.”
Carney doesn’t fit in with the crooks nor the Harlem elites. That’s unfortunate, because those are the only two groups of people he knows. Still, he’s a survivor in the engine known as New York City. Early in the novel, during one of his apartment dream-walks at night, he imagines himself and his family in an apartment building on Riverside Drive, on a floor high enough where he can see the Hudson River. “With his hands on the sill, he’d look out at the river on nights like this, the city behind him as if it didn’t exist. That rustling, keening thing of people and concrete. Or the city did exist but he stood with it heaving against him, Carney holding it all back by sheer force of character. He could take it.” Whitehead wrote an entertaining heist novel, yes, but it’s also so much more.

Find in Catalog

Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War by Jeff Shesol

Shared national narratives matter. They cohere generations around a belief system: that the country’s general purpose is, in a word, good. Such binary choices that reduce complex entities to either “good” or “bad” are often fraught with circumstance. But sometimes the circumstances ease the choice. Take the Cold War. Of course one could easily pierce the relative goodness and badness of the U.S. and the Soviet Union with specific examples. But if this same one had to choose between a liberal democracy that provides opportunities to correct injustices, or a totalitarian regime that summarily expends individuals for the regime’s sake, we should think it an easy choice.

Still, Americans in the mid-20th century actually needed to see, not just believe, that the Soviet experiment would eventually fail. Jeff Shesol, author of Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War, frames it more narrowly: Americans needed to see their country win the space race.

The term “existential threat” is probably overused. But an American at the end of 1957 could be forgiven for claiming it. That year, the Soviets launched both Sputnik and American dread. If the Soviets could launch a satellite into orbit, what else could they do? It didn’t help that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in his usual haranguing style, said that they were producing ICBMs “like sausages.” Inside the Pentagon and the Eisenhower administration, there wasn’t much regard for the R-7 Semyorka rocket the Soviets used to launch Sputnik. They thought it crude, good for only lifting heavy payload and not easily directed.

Nevertheless, questions of what the American’s were doing in space persisted, greatly annoying Eisenhower. At a news conference, he played down Sputnik. “They have put one small ball in the air.” Much later Eisenhower would nonchalantly say to reporters, “It’s not necessary to be first in everything.” While true, it’s hardly a sentiment to rally around. And as Shesol notes, many Americans thought being second in space meant being second in everything.

Under intense pressure, Eisenhower agreed to a space program. He believed that it had to be non-militaristic so as to make it less prone to the military-industrial complex. So he and Senator Lyndon Johnson, over drinks at the White House, finalized a bill that created NASA.

What followed was Project Mercury, the United States’ first man-in-space program. Shesol says it began as “a program in search of a purpose—beyond the obvious aim of ensuring that the man in question was American and not Russian.” There was already talk of landing a man on the moon, yet Eisenhower had little patience with such a fanciful thing. Plus, his Science Advisory Committee reported that the whole thoroughfare was an “emotional compulsion.” Eisenhower ultimately slashed Mercury’s budget.

James Webb, NASA’s administrator, hoped to have better luck with President Kennedy as his campaign rhetoric intimated some support. But when the Soviets sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, there was growing worry that the U.S. would not catch up to, let alone surpass, the Soviets. Besides, Kennedy had more earthly concerns: Berlin, Cuba, Southeast Asia, and domestic civil rights abuses. In a meeting with Kennedy, Webb showed him a model of the Mercury spacecraft. Kennedy dismissed it, said it looked like something you would pick up at a toy store.

Interesting as this political history is, the book really thrums when it focuses on America’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, test pilots all. Because the space program was in its nascent stages, their roles were not clearly defined. The astronauts wanted spacecraft designs to allow for consistent pilot control. The engineers, however, sought to minimize the astronauts’ role in flight, seeing them more as backups for when the automatic functions failed.

NASA administrators had the Seven on a constant travel and training schedule. At times, they stood united, pushing back against such things as having to pay for their meals when on official trips. When they were in danger of losing their flight pay because they were unable to log enough flight hours, they went to the press to have their demands met. But they were a competitive group otherwise, settling into two factions. There was John Glenn (with Scott Carpenter, “Glenn’s only true friend among the astronauts”) and Alan Shepard (who had the rest).

It was an unexpected delight to read Glenn’s backstory. He grew up dreaming of flight, eventually earning his pilot’s license in college. As a Marine in World War II, he was assigned to fly transport planes. For Glenn, this would not do and lobbied for combat. It was granted and he more than relished it. He knew he was not invincible, but his confidence as a pilot was undoubtedly secure.

He continued in the Korean War, this time flying jets. “Glenn seemed to hurl himself at targets, flying too fast and too low through sheets of anti-aircraft fire, blasting his 20-millimeter cannons.” One of his wingmen, Ted Williams (yes, that Ted Williams, of the Boston Red Sox), would later say of Glenn: “The man is crazy.” Williams could be prickly, but he also had high praise for Glenn: “Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him.”

At war’s end (and disappointed that it ended), Glenn became a test pilot, where he earned the reputation as someone who engaged in what servicemen called “sniveling.” Glenn would go on to explain what this meant: It was “going around and getting what you want to get even if you’re not slated to get it. There’s nothing wrong with it—and I was superb at it.” After he flew the first supersonic transcontinental flight (a mission he devised), he gained some fame, even appearing on “Name That Tune.”

It wasn’t just the relative aw-shucks ease in which Glenn appeared before the cameras that irked most of the other astronauts. It was more that Glenn was not like them. Drinking and womanizing were common. Glenn partook in neither. (Glenn never knew life without his wife Annie. They grew up together, and Glenn would often shield her from situations where she would need to speak, her stutter having been rated at 80 percent.) Glenn saw their libertine activities as a liability to the program. They often saw him as a scold. (Glenn believed in the notion of astronaut-as-role-model. Some members of the press tried to apply this model to Shepard, inferring that he was from humble origins and a churchgoer. In reality he grew up wealthy and openly stated that he didn’t belong to any church.)

When NASA asked the astronauts to rank who should be assigned to the first mission, Glenn knew he was in trouble. Most of the country thought it would be Glenn. Many in NASA, however, believed that Shepard was the more talented pilot. The 1-2-3 mission order would be Shepard, Gus Grissom, and then Glenn. NASA announced that while a choice had been made, the astronaut’s name would be released later. Through all of this, a livid Glenn had to stand and smile.

Shepard’s successful suborbital flight bolstered the nation’s confidence in the program. But NASA was not satisfied with suborbital missions. They thought it akin to a circus act: throw a man up in the air and then watch him come down. Grissom went on his own suborbital flight, but to little fanfare.

It was actually fortuitous that Glenn was third in line. For now, the more powerful Atlas rocket was in use, ready to carry a capsule into orbit. Shesol builds the intensity by taking us through the numerous scrubbed launches that delayed Glenn’s liftoff, the issues either mechanical or weather related. When we reach February 20, 1962, we know this is the day. We know exactly how this turns out; but Shesol takes care to have us in the moment, on edge. Glenn rides the elevator to the top of the rocket and works his way into the Mercury capsule. It’s so small, in fact, Glenn says, “You don’t get in it, you put it on.”

There was a growing national sense that this was it, an American was about to orbit the earth. People lined up along the beaches near Cape Canaveral, Florida to witness the launch. It was becoming real for Glenn, too. He was strapped in, and it felt as though the booster below him “was alive. It screeched and growled. When he shifted back and forth, it moved, just slightly.”

While in the capsule, Glenn was able to speak to Annie via telephone one final time. Dangerous missions had long standing in their shared life together, but this one was spectacularly dangerous. He ended the conversation with the same sign-off he had used since World War II. “Remember, I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.” Even though she was frightened, Annie repeated her part of the routine. “Well, don’t take too long.”

Americans were gathering around televisions and transistor radios. Schools would soon close for the day. Then the engines fired and the rocket ascended, arrowing and splitting the air into sound waves. And as long as it kept thrusting, there was a feeling that we were going to make it. In Grand Central Station a thousand or so people (eventually swelling to ten thousand) watched the big screen; someone in the crowd found the breath to yell, “Go, go, go!” President Kennedy, watching a TV in the White House, heard Walter Cronkite scream on-air, “Go, baby!”

Over the next five hours, Americans listened and waited. (Shesol points out that in 1962, 78 percent of Americans had not traveled by air.) Glenn completed his planned three orbits and returned safely. Within the same decade, Americans would behold the success of new rocketry and space exploration, culminating in the mighty Saturn V rocket and the moon landing. The technological achievements, along with the stunning visuals of space travel, were grand enough to speak for themselves. Yet, throughout—and even though it wasn’t always at the forefront of American consciousness—the space race was seen as a metaphor for the Cold War.

The Soviet Union collapsed and the Mercury astronauts are gone. If you tour the launch sites at the Cape today, you’ll see plenty of buildings marked “SpaceX,” not “NASA.” But you can still feel the history, a sense of believing in a shared endeavor. This is part of our narrative.

Find in Catalog

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Character-driven versus plot-driven stories: Readers of literary fiction often claim the former while just about everyone else stakes the latter. (Just look at the bestseller lists.) But they are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can have both. One fairly recent example where varied readers said, “You have to read this,” to other readers would be Gone Girl, the plot a bucking bronco of she said/he said. Twin this with its strong character development, and you can count literary fiction readers among the beguiled.

I’ll add to that an example from this very year, fittingly titled The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The novel centers around Jacob Finch Bonner, a literary novelist who peaked early in his career. His first book actually made it into The New York Times Book Review. But his second—and then his third—book tanked, leaving this once “young and upcoming” novelist neither young, nor upcoming. He doesn’t even have a literary agent anymore.

Still “theoretically (as opposed to actually) working on’’ a current novel, he agrees to teach (strictly for money, doubtless) a writing workshop at some never-heard-of MFA school (Ripley). Anyone can sign up, and anyone does. Even the most earnest of students run the gamut, as in “the guy who’d wanted to correct Victor Hugo’s ‘mistakes’ in a new version of Les Misérables and the woman who’d conjured the indelible non-word ‘honeymelons.’”

Then there is Evan Parker, a student who appears to have never read a story, let alone aspired to write one. He’s a flat-out jerk who clearly doesn’t want Bonner’s advice. He’s there, he finally discloses to Bonner, to make connections that will lead to his finding a literary agent who will then, in turn, help him secure a book deal on the novel he’s writing. Bonner, in disbelief of all this, tries to convey how unlikely this is, especially since he won’t share any of his writing.

Parker’s unfazed, because the plot of his novel is a “sure thing.” He reluctantly acquiesces and allows a few pages to be read. Bonner inwardly concedes that this guy can write. It’s not great, but neither is it hackneyed. Then Parker unpacks the plot, and Bonner is stunned: The plot is amazing.

The workshop ends and Bonner moves on to other side gigs that are becoming less “side” than “main” because he has all but ceased writing. He creates a website “touting his editorial skills,” and it does not go well. “The writing he encountered in this new role of online editor, coach, and consultant (that marvelously malleable word) made the least of his Ripley students seem like Hemingway.”

A few years pass and Bonner wonders what became of Parker and his “sure thing.” After some online investigating, he learns that not only does the novel remain unpublished, but that Parker has died. And this is the moment, the crossroads. This amazing plot is now authorless. You can almost feel the rush of euphoria surge through Bonner as he justifies his decision. How can he deny a plot that needs a writer? Ignoring it is not an option; it would forever gnaw at him, at any true writer. And are not new stories mere retellings anyway? “Miss Saigon from Madame Butterfly. The Hours from Mrs. Dalloway. The Lion King from Hamlet, for goodness’ sake!” He was given an “urgent, shimmering thing,” so he, the literary writer, must write it.

Once published, Bonner’s book becomes every bit the success he hoped. Straight to the top of the bestseller list. Oprah blesses it. His appearances and readings now fill auditoriums. (He no longer has to suffer through the indignity—as he did during his earlier books—of having only his parents show up at a reading.)

He’s living the successful writerly life he has always wanted. Yet he’s terrified. At any moment someone could stand up during a reading and yell out that he is a fraud. And come it does, the allegation, via an anonymous email: “You are a thief.”

To say any more about what happens next would be criminal. (I will say: It’s engaging.) Stephen King has a blurb on the jacket calling it “Insanely readable.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but I’ll agree. And it’s more than the plot. Korelitz made Bonner a curious joy to spend time with. He’s pleasant enough on the outside but sardonic on the inside. To wit: Before his fame—and while teaching—he expresses to a colleague who teaches poetry that he wished he read more poetry. In reality: “He didn’t, actually, but he wished he wished he read more poetry, which ought to count for something.” After he’s famous, and after yet another bloke says to him, “My wife read your book,” Bonner thinks, “Five monosyllabic words, speaking volumes.”

Bonner’s genial affect belies his inner turmoil. But even if there wasn’t something weighing on his conscience during the height of his book’s success, I can’t see that he would be much happier. Not as stressed, sure. But adulation only goes so far. An old cliché fits Bonner perfectly: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

Find in Catalog

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer

Tales of polar expeditions haunt because we know how they end. In the early 20th century, pack ice crushed Ernest Shackleton’s ship, dashing his race to trek Antarctica. Even this is a relative success as all crew members survived. Not so for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He and his crew were never heard from again. (The British government subsequently investigated their disappearance. Perhaps they should’ve left well enough alone lest unpleasant answers surface, such as those told via eyewitness Inuits: The shipwrecked crew cannibalized each other. News of this scandalized England.)
In “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of World,” Andrea Pitzer takes us back even further, to William Barents’ 1596 quest to find a northeastern route to China. Brisk and informative, it’s also stress-laden from bow to stern. Precariously, we sail up and around Nova Zembla, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean just north of Russia. Storms threaten to snap our mast. Polar bears prowl and then attack. It’s constant tacking to slip evermoving sea ice, some akin to floating mountains. On one occasion, we pass through an ice canyon, which is equal parts mesmeric and terrifying. (“Snow and hail lacquered the ships white, turning them into ghost ships.”) We’re sailing into the unknown. And Barents attempts this journey three times.
A Dutchman, Barents manifested his country’s spirit of the day: capitalize on Far East trade. Spain and Portugal had already made numerous entries into the Southern Hemisphere, so the Dutch looked for a way to expedite trade that avoided the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope and awaiting pirates. Of course the Dutch knew that there was a reason no northern route yet existed. But they also were hoping to underscore a long-standing argument that if one could make it past the ice, there’s a chance conditions would moderate. The idea of a temperate North Pole was something that respected cartographers took seriously. As Pitzer notes, Barents and Dutch merchants chose to believe this “lethal delusion.”
Barents didn’t command these voyages; he navigated. While he was in high standing among the crew, his singular goal to complete a voyage often collided with the crew’s singular goal to survive. Most of the book surrounds the third voyage and the sea ice’s eventual victory. Barents and crew must winter on Nova Zembla, and Pitzer’s telling of their ordeal is as harrowing as you can imagine. Without trapping arctic foxes, it’s hard to see how they would have survived. Scurvy had weakened them to the point they could barely function, not that they could do much outside anyway. Often, the structure they built was completely buried in snow during the long polar night.
And then, of course, the polar bears. Pitzer writes of their “lethal magnificence,” and that “each bear offered the same fusion of the mundane and the mythic as the Arctic itself.” Even a felled polar bear almost killed the crew. Desperate for sustenance, but loathing polar bear meat, they devoured the bear’s liver. This almost killed them because a polar bear’s liver contains a lethal dose of Vitamin A.
The asides that Pitzer offers throughout the book are welcome relief from reading of the sailors’ miseries. I learned that most European sailors of the time didn’t know how to swim. And even though we are in the nascent stages of the scientific revolution, superstition still often carried the day. Dutch sailors crossing the equator for the first time had to pay a fine in honor of Poseidon, god of the sea. Also, seeing a parhelion (where ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the illusion of two or three suns) was a good omen to sailors. (Of course, superstition and sailing seem forever entwined.)
Pitzer states that, in terms of making preparations, it’s somewhat perplexing that Barents didn’t learn from his two erstwhile attempts. It’s a good point because he was almost snared by ice during those voyages as well. Perhaps it can be attributed to European hubris of the era: The rest of the world is to be conquered, and we are the ones who will do it. On one of the earlier expeditions, the crew, sailing Russia’s northern coast, came across an indigenous man. Instead of inquiring how he and others survived in this unforgiving climate, they asked him if the territory they were on belonged to “the grand duke of Moscow.” The Nenets man had no idea whom they were talking about. No matter. They tried to kidnap him nonetheless. The same applied to animals. See a walrus? Kill it and take only the tusks. Tragi-comically, on their first expedition they thought they could catch and actually hold a live polar bear aboard the ship. They were quickly disabused of that notion.
Escape from what they called Ice Harbor did not happen until June 1597. Barents did not survive the return, dying next to the sea that would bear his name. (Sailors would also call the sea “the devil’s dance floor.”) He and his crew had discovered Spitsbergen, sailing farther north than any known human. But it’s their story of survival that captivated. A handful of years later, Shakespeare made mention of it in “Twelfth Night”: “where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.”
Barents’ voyages changed how polar regions were seen. They became destinations to be explored, not thoroughfares to other lands. According to Pitzer, Barents “launched another identity for explorers: the beleaguered polar hero.” These new explorers would be less concerned with linking known lands than with exploring the unknown as the end itself. And their hallmarks were suffering and endurance.
Pitzer eventually discusses what most readers will be thinking throughout the book: Barents sailed 400 years too soon. Disappearing sea ice is a fraught subject, and Pitzer’s book shows us what’s being lost. The polar wild now includes emaciated polar bears clinging to melting floes. In writing the book, Pitzer made a trip to behold Ice Harbor. The current that sent driftwood to the shores—thus providing life-saving fuel for Barents and crew to burn—now sends plastic trash. As I said, this book is stressful.

Find in Catalog

Inside Story: A Novel by Martin Amis

A frequently asked question of authors in “The New York Times Book Review” goes something like this. “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which authors do you invite?” From the answers, we are to glean literary leanings. To me, what’s also being revealed is authors’ idea of a dinner party.
I’m partial to lively dinner gatherings, so you, dear reader, will be seated next to Norman Mailer (the Mailer from the 1970s). Across from him will be the essayist Christopher Hitchens (the Hitchens from any decade). And it just so happens that Hitchens’ good friend is a fellow Oxford-educated writer, and one of my favorite novelists, Martin Amis. He’s the quintessential English wit to add a cool levity that will attenuate the other combustible personalities at the table. Let’s seat him across from you.
Amis is renowned for using his high style of prose to unveil modernity’s excesses and absurdities, often writing about characters you would never actually want to know (which, trust, works). He is in his seventh decade and has stated that his latest novel, Inside Story: A Novel, could very well be his last. It’s a work of autofiction, so some might be frustrated in delineating fact from fiction. It nonetheless certainly reads like an autobiography. (Amis doesn’t spare himself in the book. He quotes George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”). Plus, those who like his work will not really care one way or the other. Amis knows how to turn a sentence, so we are willing to afford him a wide latitude. Example: In one of his earlier novels he placed himself as an actual character. This was too much for Amis’ father, the venerated novelist Kingsley Amis; for when he came across the portion of the novel that introduced the character “Martin Amis,” he threw the book across the room.
Here, Amis more/less oscillates among three individuals. Because Kingsley was a large presence in Martin’s excellent 2000 memoir, “Experience,” he’s not one of them. But, just you wait, one of these three will hand Martin some big news concerning Kingsley.
First is the novelist Saul Bellow, whom Amis revered. Conversations between the two came naturally, and Amis recounts many. We learn that Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards, “despised with every neutrino of his being” what often passed as literary pedagogy. He did not abide attending literary conferences only to be told such things as what “Ahab’s harpoon symbolizes.”
We already know that novelists are users by nature. “Novelists are power-crazed usurpers,” cautions Amis. If you friend one, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a novel. Bellow, apparently, ran with this notion, ruining many of his marriages and driving some of his family members to cease speaking with him. Yet, according to Amis, Bellow’s last wife possessed an “atavistic fire” of devotion as Alzheimer’s plagued him.
“Writers die twice,” writes Amis. And it happened to Bellow. When Amis looked into his eyes one day, he knew that Bellow’s writing days were over. Gone was the prose that was a “force of nature.” Bellow was experiencing a “death of the mind: dissolution most foul.”
If Bellow’s prose was a force of nature, it could be said that Christopher Hitchens was a force of nature. To say he was a columnist and an orator understates Hitchens. He used the pen and the lectern about as fiercely and masterfully as one can, possessing “no ordinary powers of restiveness and mental orchestration.” And no institution or individual was safe. At times, especially in his later years, it almost seemed that Hitchens was becoming a contrarian for its own sake. But he remained consistent in challenging anything fascistic or nonsensical, which, to him, included religion.
Amis and Hitchens met in the early 1970s, their lives eventually following a similar pattern of marriage, children, divorce, and then remarriage. Amis has plenty of stories to share about his friend. And no recounting of Hitchens would be complete without mentioning his copious intake of alcohol and cigarettes. To wit: one night, Amis and Hitchens had an epic go with vodka, wine, and various other spirits. The next day, a severely hungover Amis found that not only had Hitchens made it to an early morning television appearance and debate, but he also wrote an article for publication. At noon, Hitchens let himself into Amis’ place, poured a whiskey for himself and inquired how Amis was feeling. In response to hearing of Amis’ dreadful state, Hitchens devilishly replied, “Mm. I don’t get hangovers. Can’t see the point of them.”
The point of them, of course, is to listen to your body’s distress moan: “Slow down, man.” This lack of communication caught up with Hichens in 2010 when he was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. Amis says that Hitchens had a “compulsion to stride into his fears.” But still, there’s no small degree of poignancy to read that Hitchens quietly lamented the finality of it all: never seeing England again; missing his niece’s upcoming wedding. Hitchens’ two deaths were in proximity, and Amis was a dot-the-i friend to him through it all; he was by his side during treatment and at his death.
Then there is Phoebe Phelps, a girlfriend of Amis from the late 1970s, a woman he found “alluringly amoral.” When she went broke from gambling, Amis invited her to live with him. But cohabitating did not change the fact that she did not return love in kind. He knew he had made a mistake, that he was “out of his depth, and going under.” (You can find characters like her in Amis’ fiction. And you can see this version of Amis as well. In “The Information,” our protagonist awoke one morning “at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”)
Their relationship ended after five years. Decades later, Phelps reentered Amis’ life. On September 12, 2001, still shocked from the terrorist attacks the day prior, Amis was met with another jolt. Phelps rang him up to announce, “It’s been bothering me for twenty-four years and I don’t see why it shouldn’t start bothering you.” The bother: Phelps said that Kingsley had told her that he was not Martin’s father. The poet Philip Larkin was.
Martin’s wife tells him that this was just another contrived cruelty from Phelps. (And it certainly appeared that it was.) Martin can’t help but mull it about, however. Yes, Kingsley and Philip were friends. Yes, too, Martin appreciates Larkin’s poetry. But the thought of being “a Larkin” chills him. It’s clear that so much of Larkin repulses Martin: that Larkin skirted fighting the Nazis, that he was a sour and gloomy mess who hated children. (And Martin’s love life fell more on the Kingsley side of the ledger, meaning Kingsley had a staggering number of affairs. While Martin did not go to quite that extreme, he was more in line with Kingsley’s camp than with Larkin’s “irreducible church-mouse penury.” This clearly bothers Amis. Take from that what you will.) Phelps was jealous that it was Martin who went on to marry and have children. She couldn’t stand that it was she who became, in essence, “a Larkin.”
Amis also has plenty to impart on a range of topics, including writing. Here’s one: want to write a religious novel? Don’t, says Amis, “because fiction is essentially a temporal and rational form.” That’s why Amis can’t get on with Graham Greene. He likens reading Greene to riding a train. The prose moves along smoothly enough, but the tea trolley is rattling away. To Amis, that annoying rattle is religion.
As of this writing, I’ve left the last handful of the novel’s pages unread, for two reasons. 1) I don’t want good books to end. 2) I know that Amis is saying goodbye to his readers, so I’m trying to delay my bereavement. Over decades, he’s taken great care of his readers, his guests. If he had never written a word, Amis states that he would have been more than content with being just a reader. Because no other art form better reveals the depth of an inner life than literature. When we read of others doing, as Bellow writes, “the silent work of uneventful days,” we see in them derivatives of our own. Well, Mr. Amis, I’m pleased you wielded a pen and did the long work. And if this is it, and our visits have come to an end, then know this: Believe, the pleasure was all mine.

Find in Catalog

The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

If there’s one college course that seems to fall into the “liked it/hated it” dichotomy, it’s probably Macroeconomics. For every student who leans into studying the national economy, there’s another who will be just fine to never again read such phrases as “elasticity vs. inelasticity of demand.” There’s one man to credit (or blame) for this: John Maynard Keynes.

Keynesian economics (read: macroeconomics) has pulsed throughout our political economy since the New Deal. In short, some of its main tenets concern full employment, aggregate demand clearing supply, and inflation. Still, I knew very little about the British economist himself. “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” by Zachary Carter certainly took care of that knowledge gap.

Mathematics, not economics, was Keynes’ University of Cambridge degree. After a brief stint as a civil servant, he returned to academic life at Cambridge, which was where the Exchequer’s office found him just prior to World War I. A banking crisis afoot, Keynes’ keen mind was known and needed. So he crammed his 6’7″ frame into a motorcycle sidecar and made his way to London.

The Great War and the British economy would engulf his life. He wouldn’t fight in the war, as he applied for conscientious objector status, a position he came by honestly. Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Set, which included such notables as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. Of the many things that formed their bond, with the arts at the pinnacle, pacifism was certainly a part. For some in the group, that Keynes would work for the government during wartime went beyond the pale.

The frustration was returned in kind by Keynes. Someone, he argued, had to address the awful reality and manage a wartime economy. This wouldn’t be last time there was tension within the group. Years later, Keynes fell for, and subsequently married, a Russian ballerina. This was contrary to the Keynes they knew. Bloomsbury Keynes was a homosexual.

At war’s end, Keynes vehemently opposed the Treaty of Versailles. Forever an enemy of austerity measures, he believed the harsh economic terms would destabilize a defeated Germany and potentially lead to another world war. The treaty put Keynes at war with himself. As a young man, obtaining a post at the esteemed British Treasury was his singular goal. Now, having seen firsthand how important the roil of politics is, he could not sit quietly as a future disaster was being orchestrated.

He penned “The Economic Consequences of Peace” which became a sensation in both Europe and the U.S. His intellectual might was on full display, doubtless, but so, too, was his acid tongue. Sparring no one also effectively ended his government career (at least until World War II). Keynes is famous today for his economic theories. In the early 1920s, however, his fame was as a polemicist.

Had a pre-war work—finally published in 1921—augured more than just an acknowledgement that it “made a contribution to the field,” Keynes may have swiftly returned to university life, but, this time, in the philosophy department. His “A Treatise on Probability” was overshadowed by one of his friendly rivals. For when Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was published, the gravity shifted and all of academia fell in with the Austrian philosopher.

Keynes continued to publish on economics and, in so doing, challenged conventional (classical) economics. At the macro level, the study of economics was firmly entrenched in laissez-faire thinking: You let the business cycles work and equilibrium will be achieved. Keynes certainly agreed that supply/demand was the driving force. But what of those moments of disequilibrium? Laissez-faire’s response: It will won’t last; the market will stabilize in the long run. “In the long run,” Keynes returned, “we are all dead.” This rejoinder has been bandied about ever since and in a myriad of contexts. But here’s the rest of the quote: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes advocated what economists now call “demand management.” Demand did not always clear supply, especially during times of war and depression. To Keynes, government expenditures via fiscal policies would shift the demand curve. Such movements would have a positive multiplier effect on other areas of the economy. His multiplier theory argued that laissez-faire’s inaction was actually actionable in that it allowed economic distress to reverberate.

While Keynes’ work would be seen as “revolutionary,” the man behind it was somewhat uncomfortable with that adjective. In many ways, his worldview was formed as a Burkean conservative. But he also valued some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s egalitarianism. Merging the two philosophies to thwart authoritarianism was, to Keynes, a laudable enterprise. He loved his posh Bloomsbury life too much to see it end. Plus, he wanted the rest of us to have a chance to live such a life as well. So he was no Marxist. In fact, he believed that Marx’s argument that capitalism would inherently fail was inherently wrong. At the same time, he didn’t believe that there was any natural law that destined capitalism’s success either.

Keynes taught his theories at Cambridge, yet, initially, they were not winning the day among graduate students. (Marxism was.) This began to change. Not only were these students beginning to embrace Keynesianism, some would travel down to the London School of Economics and provoke impromptu debates with the students still fixed in laissez-faire. Eventually, American economics students embarked to Cambridge to study under Keynes.

Still, Keynesianism was at the periphery. Keynes knew he needed to codify it into an esoteric work meant for academics. (In the world of academia, “you need a theory to kill a theory.”) This was realized in the “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

The Great Depression resulted in Keynes becoming Churchill’s de facto chancellor of the exchequer. Particular attention was given to the fiscal policies put in place in the United States, as they were seen as test cases for Keynesianism. The result: American economists who initially resisted Keynes became Keynesians in the same decade of his death.

According to Carter, “No European mind since Newton had impressed himself so profoundly on both the political and intellectual development of the world.” The revolution had come. And as happens with so many revolutions, so comes the counter-revolution.

In the U.S., the aristocracy saw Franklin Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Riled moneyed men were willing to fund academics and publications willing to challenge Keynesianism. William F. Buckley Jr.’s “National Review” used Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” as its intellectual base and went to work. Keynesians were up for the fight. What left them reeling, however, was McCarthyism.

Keynesianism would have many morphisms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. American Keynesians, at turns, embraced more corporate-influenced policies the British Keynesians found abhorrent. Another famous quote concerning Keynes came from President Richard Nixon: “I am now Keynesian in economics.”

Enter Milton Friedman’s monetarism and decades of strident debate concerning the size and role of government in fiscal and monetary policy, and here we are. (Economists can be an acerbic lot, where things get really personal, really fast.) And you don’t have to go back too far to see Keynesian fiscal initiatives at work, as in the 2008 financial dilemma.

Regardless of the modern relevance of Keynes, here’s what Carter wants us to take away from his astute book: Keynesianism isn’t so much about economic theory as it is about radical optimism. Keynes lived in a time of dire economic crises that gave rise to authoritarians who then took their respective countries off the cliff. For him, economics was the light by which we could find our way out. For us, Keynes was every bit a philosopher of war and peace.

Find in Catalog