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Writing Worth Reading

Raise Your Hand If You’ve Read Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sequence of autobiographical novels, My Struggle is getting huge press attention and fabulous reviews. You might assume the author to be enjoying an international success matching his triumph at home in Norway. The numbers suggest otherwise. Total American sales of the three volumes so far published in English amount to 32,000 copies — respectable, but hardly remarkable (1,900 words)

Are The Authoritarians Winning?

Authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia, are “aglow with arrogant confidence”. Democracies are wracked by “envy and despondency”. But the authoritarian vision of prosperity without freedom is unsustainable. “The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability. It depends for its vitality on discontent. Discontent leads to peaceful regime change, and as regimes change, free societies can discard failed alternatives” (3,730 words)

The Ninety-Minute Anxiety Dream

A football-loving philosopher writes: “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally, and intelligently and make it effective. Talk of national tactics, national behaviors, national pathologies is overblown and misplaced. There is one way to play soccer and that is well” (1,680 words)

The Philosopher In The World

Interview with John Searle. Interesting throughout. Topics include human rights, animal rights, philosophers in government, Bernard Williams, philosophy of language. “There is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights” (2,328 words)

Does Geithner Pass The Test?

Former US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner claims in his memoir, Stress Test, to have steered the American economy successfully out of the 2007-2008 financial crash. Which is true to the extent that the country avoided another Great Depression. But the Geithner years were still a disaster — a “Lesser Depression” — in which trillions of dollars and millions of jobs were lost. If the crisis was a test, America failed it (3,630 words)

Reading: The Struggle

How fiction will evolve in a distracted world. “The novel of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity will divide itself into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, to make it easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable” (1,745 words)

India After English

English is ceasing to be the language of power in India. The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is more at ease in Hindi and Gujarati. Literacy rates are rising fast; but it is Bengali, Hindi and Marathi newspapers which are prospering, while English ones stagnate. “The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English” (1,820 words)

The Inspired Voyage Of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The third and concluding volume in Leigh Fermor’s diary of his walk across Europe appears almost 80 years later, based on a draft written in the 1960s, less polished than the earlier books. “By the end, the lacquered manner has dissolved, and a different, far more touching and sympathetic hero emerges. The whole thing couldn’t have been better structured if the author had planned it this way all along” (4,625 words)

Charles Ives, Nostalgic Rebel

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s biography, “Mad Music”. Ives worked most of his life in insurance: “By day he crafted sales pitches for an army of insurance men; by night he scrawled unsalable musical visions.” He was 65 when his music made him famous. Critics derided his “amateurism”, but “that is the injustice of art — sometimes all the craft in the world is trumped by someone with something more important to say”. (3,400 words)

Of Brains & Minds: An Exchange

Fine spat between Churchland, author of “Neurophilosophy”, and McGinn, who reviewed it . Churchland: “Nobody in neuroscience needs McGinn to tell us that structural correlates of a function do not ipso facto explain that function. His sermonizing is just so much spit in the wind.” McGinn: “It is possible to discern some points beneath the rhetoric in which Patricia Churchland indulges. But none of these points is right” (1,360 words)

The Art Hitler Hated

The Nazis arrived at their notion of “degenerate art” partly because they could not settle on a positive aesthetic of their own. Nazi art was “whatever Hitler felt at the moment”. He favoured expressionism, then turned against it. The 1937 “Entartete Kunst” exhibition was mirrored by a “Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung,” or Great German Art Show, of approved Nazi art. Some artists — Nolde, Barlach, Belling — featured in both (2,600 words)

Ghosts Of Tiananmen

Discussion of recent books on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and its legacy by Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He. “June 4 was a watershed in contemporary Chinese history, a turning point that ended the idealism and experimentation of the 1980s, and led to the hypercapitalist and hypersensitive China of today”. The Communist Party found political repression and economic liberalisation to be a winning formula (3,906 words)

Pakistan: Worse Than We Knew

In form a review of Carlotta Gall’s “The Wrong Enemy”, about America in Afghanistan; in substance a warning that terrorist groups are taking over Pakistan. Until a year or two ago Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) assisted “almost every terrorist group based in Pakistan”, thinking to use them as tools. Instead, Pakistan has become a tool for the terrorists. The ISI has seen its error, and reversed course, but too late (4,150 words)

Stretch Genes

Polite but firm slapping-down of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which argues that “human races likely differ in social behaviour for genetic reasons as a result of recent evolution”. There are divergences between the genomes of population groups on different continents; but Wade produces no evidence that this causes, or is caused by, different patterns of behaviour (3,680 words)

A New L’Étranger

After her triumph with Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, Sandra Smith has produced an “admirable” translation of Albert Camus’s The Outsider. “Her Meursault emerges, in the crisp clarity of her prose, emphatically not as a monster, but as a man who will not embellish or elaborate. We are not to understand thereby that Meursault is unfeeling or heartless. He is, rather, painfully without pretension” (1,460 words)

Ways Of Being Alien

Bewildered but admiring review of Under The Skin: “At any given moment we might be watching a fantastic tale dressed up in documentary trappings or a mass of documentary footage held together by the wisp of a fantasy. The fantastic element resides essentially in the person of Scarlett Johansson, who while often naked is at the same time entirely concealed: a paradox that unravels itself in the most literal way” (1,700 words)

Ukraine: The Only Way To Peace Pick of the day

Civil war is not yet inevitable, but to forestall it the West must be clear and open about its capacities and intentions. It will not fight for Ukraine. It cannot enable the Kiev government to retake the east militarily. The best possible outcome is known by all: “A federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests”. The West should work for that while it is still a possibility (1,800 words)

The New Synthetic Biology: Who Gains?

Sobering essay, elegantly written, broader and deeper and much more interesting than its bare title might suggest. It asks, in brief: For whose good is science conducted? “Nothing in history suggests that those who control and profit from material production can really be depended upon to devote the needed foresight, creativity, and energy to protect us from the possible negative effects of synthetic biology” (2,950 words)

Let The Past Collapse On Time

Russia’s lurch towards democracy in 1991 was not so much a revolution as an interlude. With Putin, the Soviet mindset has returned. “The country automatically becomes hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader. All of his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes become state policy. If he is paranoid, the whole country must fear enemies and spies; if he has insomnia, all the ministries must work at night” (1,820 words)

My Carcass And Myself

Somewhat elliptical review of Marcel Theroux’s “wondrous, uncanny” novel, Strange Bodies, which takes as its theme the interplay between mind, body and identity. “The reader learns in the opening sentence that a man named Nicky Slopen has come back from death … What if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? It no longer seems so farfetched, and it might not be pretty” (1,547 words)

The New Gilded Age

Review of Thomas Piketty’s “truly superb book”, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, which “will change the way we think about society and the way we do economics”. It “melds grand historical sweep with painstaking data analysis”. Piketty argues that we are heading for “patrimonial capitalism,” in which “the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties” (4,320 words)

The Mental Life Of Plants And Animals

How worms, jellyfish and other living things think. “If one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too”. Plants “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more”. They cannot learn, however; all information must be there in their genomes, which is why some plant genomes are larger than ours (3,770 words)

Dick Cheney: He Remade Our World Pick of the day

He was “the most powerful vice-president in American history”. His “singular genius” was to take “an oddly archaic constitutional office” and to energise it “by force of will, quiet audacity, and a peculiar institutional brilliance”. Much of this gripping piece turns on a conflict between the White House and the Justice Department over NSA surveillance programmes, later to be the stuff of Edward Snowden’s revelations (4,250 words)

Imaginary Jews

David Nirenberg’s “brilliant, fascinating, and deeply depressing” new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is “an intellectual history of Western civilization, seen from a peculiar but frighteningly revealing perspective”. It shows how centuries of “Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements” have been blamed upon the imaginary behaviour of “imagined Jews” (3,900 words)

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