Crimea And The Hysteria Of History Pick of the day

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)

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