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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Does It Help To Know History?

Yes. Not for specific lessons; the same year never comes around twice; but for more philosophical truths. “What history actually shows is that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war — sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it” (1,230 words)

Crimea And The Hysteria Of History

Sound take on the crisis in Ukraine. In brief: Calm down. “Russia is behaving as every regional power in the history of human regions has always behaved, maximising its influence over its neighbours. In response, we should be doing what sane states should always be doing: searching for the most plausible war-avoiding, nonviolent arrangement, even at the cost of looking wishy-washy” (984 words)

Faith Starts To Fade

Review of recent books on atheism and religious belief. “There seem to be three distinct peaks of modern disbelief, moments when, however hard it is to count precise numbers, we can sense that it was cool to be a scoffer, trendy to vote No. One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own” (4,740 words)

The Death Of JFK: What More Do We Know?

Fifty years on, two conclusions endure. First, US security services gathered formidable evidence for the sole guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald. Second, those same security services were “up to their armpits” in sinister behaviour, including the killing of other world leaders. “The division of American life into two orders — an official one of rectitude, a seedy lower order of crime — collapses under scrutiny, like the alibi in a classic film noir” (5,000 words)

Mindless

On the reaction against neuroscience as the answer to everything. “Neuroscience can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones. It can tell us how our minds are made to hear music, but not why Mozart is more profound than Manilow. Asserting that an emotion is really real because you can somehow see it happening in the brain adds nothing to our understanding” (2,960 words)

Cutting And Pasting J.D. Salinger

Dismissive review of David Shields and Shane Salerno’s “heavily hyped” biography Salinger. Negative takes don’t usually make rewarding reading; but this one does, a measure of how well Gopnik writes. “The method the book employs is what was once quaintly called a clip-job — the kind of celebrity bio where, in the guise of research, previously published work is passed off, with varying degrees of honesty, as original discovery” (2,460 words)

Understanding Steinese

Gertrude Stein’s style became Hemingway’s style, and thus a model for modern American prose: Flat words, subtle thoughts, studied simplicity. “A lot of its effect is achieved by the ridiculously straightforward device of removing normal punctuation. Any sentence, no matter how many qualifications it contains, is almost always written by Stein in commaless, undivided form. This makes her thoughts seem plain even when they are very fancy” (2,560 words)

The Pain When Children Fly The Nest

Thoughts on love, and especially parental love, provoked by the departure of an 18-year-old son for college: “What I wonder about is why we love our children so asymmetrically, so entirely, knowing that the very best we can hope for is that they will feel about us as we feel about our own parents: that slightly aggrieved mixture of affection, pity, tolerance and forgiveness, with a final soupcon – if we live long enough – of sorrow” (1,557 words)

Science, Magic And Madness

Nobody likes to be told that they are wrong. But that’s how science advances: through proof and disproof, the experimental method. Galileo learned more from throwing things off towers than John Dee learned from sacred books. “The glory of modern science is that, while only a very few can understand its particular theories, anyone can understand its peculiar approach – it is simply the perpetual assertion of experience over authority, and of debate over dogma” (1,724 words)

Chess And 18th-Century Artificial Intelligence

Reflections on The Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth-century device which purported to be a chess-playing machine, but which worked by means of a human chess-player concealed inside the cabinet. The inventor, Johann Maelzel, “picked up chess players on the run, wherever he happened to be, as Chuck Berry used to hire back-up bands on the road”

Moon Man: What Galileo Saw

Great scientists establish truths that will outlast them by centuries. If they work under oppressive regimes, as Galileo did in papal Italy, it’s not the best use of their time to fight the oppression. Their highest priority must be to create the space in which they can do their scientific work—if necessary, by making compromises with power

Newtown And The Madness Of Guns

Gun lobbyists have made a clear moral choice: “That the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value”

Faces, Places, Spaces

Historians and military strategists develop new respect for geography after bungled invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan. “Our desires as nations, like our desires as individuals, are rooted in the unchanging features of our terrain”

I, Nephi

On the history and meaning of Mormonism. “Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce. This gospel of prosperity is the one American faith that will never fail”

One More Massacre

“Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness. In America, it is the belief that guns designed to kill people can be widely available and not end with people being killed”

Team Spirit

“We are about to enter that period, which occurs every four years, when Americans become passionate about athletes we have never heard of participating in games we do not follow.” Thoughts on nation states, nationalism, the Olympics

Embarrassing Parents And The Teenage Truth

“The one thing that is written into the human genome is that exactly at the age of 13, your child will discover that you are now the most embarrassing, ridiculous and annoying person on the planet. This is a universal truth”

Hockey Without Rules

What sustains violence in the NHL? Maybe commercial factors. But “the real culprit is the clan ethic that came into hockey at its birth. Since the clan ethic is part of what makes hockey appealing, it’s a hard thing to lose”

The Forty-Year Itch

The people who control what gets commissioned for TV shows are generally 40-somethings. Their nostalgia is for the era of and just before their birth. Hence “Mad Men” now. For meanings of the Obama era, tune in in the 2050s

The Big Reveal

On the Bible’s last book. “Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events happening at the time of writing. It’s really a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement”

The Caging Of America

But the structural problems in western societies go deeper. Adam Gopnik, in a powerful New Yorker essay, describes the prison system as “the moral scandal of American life,” incarcerating more people than Stalin sent to the gulags

The Caging Of America

More than six million people are under “correctional supervision” in the US – more than were in Stalin’s Gulags. Why so many? This superb account suggests there’s been a serious failure of common sense and humanity

The Dragon’s Egg

Look back at Tolkien, history of fantasy writing. “Fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons”

Try This At Home

On El Bulli’s master chef’s cookbook. “If you and I had the self-discipline to plan our meals and lay out our ingredients thoughtfully, Adrià sincerely believes, we could soon be making electric eel powder with goat-brain gels”

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