Category Archives: Literature

Different Attitudes Towards Life

In today’s polarized discourse, there is a stark difference between thinkers who spend most of their time being for something, and those who spend most of their time being against something. One attitude is healthier than the other, and is more likely to lead towards truth, and is likelier to succeed in persuading others and getting its policies enacted.

Think of it as the difference between between favoring liberalism, openness, and dynamism on one hand; and owning the libs or the cons, depending on one’s tribal affiliation, on the other.

Which makes this passage from near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s 1943 novel Brideshead Revisited especially poignant (p. 383 of the Back Bay Books edition):

I said to the doctor, who was with us daily: “He’s got a wonderful will to live, hasn’t he?”

“Would you put it like that? I should say a great fear of death.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh dear, yes. He doesn’t derive any strength from his fear, you know. It’s wearing him out.”


Book Review: Arthur C. Clarke – A Fall of Moondust

Arthur C. Clarke – A Fall of Moondust

A good old-fashioned disaster story, set on the moon. A moon rover carrying a group of well-heeled tourists across the Sea of Thirst gets swallowed into a sinkhole. The passengers are unable to radio for help–the regolith (moon soil) blocks their transmissions. They have few provisions, since they were on a short trip. Worse, the heat buildup inside the vehicle, plus a limited oxygen supply, means that help needs to arrive fast. Fortunately, the passengers include a world-famous retired astronaut who was trying to take a low-key trip, among other people with unexpected talents. Some clever scientists back at the base and on Earth are also able to suss out what happened to the missing vehicle, and are able to finagle a dramatic rescue.

The plot is formulaic and the characters are cheesy. But the setting is remarkable, the science is enjoyable—though I don’t think the bits about the moon’s surface hold up very well—and it’s a lot of fun. Not as substantial as Clarke’s usual fare, but if you’re in the mood for something light, one could do worse.

Book Review: C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters

C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942).

I have almost no interest in theology, and actively dislike proselytizing. Yet, I enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. The book consists of 31 letters written by Screwtape, a senior demon, to his bumbling nephew Wormwood, who is having trouble tempting his “Patient” to sin and damnation. Lewis has a sly, avuncular humor throughout that makes his unsubtle didactic aims go down easier. And Screwtape is endlessly quotable. Lewis was a talented writer, and there is a reason people still read him.

That said, Lewis’ post-Victorian-Christian hangups about sex are as amusing as they are unhealthy. Most societies today, and throughout history, have less repressed norms that better fit human biology, and normal human behavior.

Less amusing is Lewis’ apparent belief that people cannot be morally good without religious belief. His frequent criticisms of materalism as immoral make no logical sense. Here, Lewis means “materialism” not in the sense of greed, but rather in the metaphysical sense of rejecting the existence of non-physical spirits.

The trouble with this argument is, well, almost everywhere. High-character people who are not religious are easy to find. In Lewis’ argument, X has no link to Y. And Lewis does not attempt to find one, arguing only by assertion. His broad-brush dismissal of millions of good people is arguably its own moral failing.

Much of Lewis’ other advice is on firmer ground. One need not share his theism to agree that the world would be a kinder place if people were a bit better at resisting temptation.

A Political Strategy that Is Effective, yet Unwise

Louis-Phillipe I was the last king of France. He reigned from 1830 to 1840. Victor Hugo observed of him on p. 862 of the Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables that part of his political adroitness came from

“frightening France with Europe and frightening Europe with France [and] prizing domination more than authority and authority more than dignity.”

Two centuries later the tactic remains effective. Just sub in the in-groups and out-groups of the moment for France and Europe. Yet it remains unwise, as both the end of Louis-Phillipe’s reign and the policy results of contemporary politicians makes clear.

Mark Forsyth – The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

Mark Forsyth – The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

Just as German seems to have a word for just about every feeling or situation, English and Latin seem to have a word for just about every way to use words. Forsyth knows not just how to use English’s many figures of speech, from metonomy to assonance, but he knows their names—most of which this reader has already forgotten again.

He is also very funny. This book is less about improving one’s writing, and more about having fun with language while admiring how crafty some of its best practitioners can be. Forsyth has a way of making fun of Shakespeare while showing how truly talented he was. He also doesn’t confine himself to stuffy classics in his examples, and uses references to popular music and recent movies even younger readers would be familiar with. This book is short, reads easily, and Forsyth’s sly, ever-present humor makes for an entertaining read. Hopefully the reader also gets a sense of how to avoid writing the kind of purple prose Forsyth might mock.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson – Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 3)

The conclusion to the trilogy. With Mars now politically independent and boasting a population of about 12 million, Robinson devotes substantial time to constitutional design and how to design a political system from scratch. Politics and economics are clearly not his expertise, but just going through the exercise with him and his characters is a lot of fun. About a quarter of the way through, some of the characters take a trip to Earth for diplomatic purposes. A few of them are among the Earth-born First Hundred to go Mars, and they don’t feel as though they’ve returned home. Nirgal, a second-generation Martian, has his own troubles adapting to Earth’s gravity and open atmosphere.

Robinson also devotes a lot of time to aging. Most of the characters take longevity treatments, and members of the First Hundred are a good 140-150 years old at the beginning of the book, with their apparent physiological ages topping out at about 70. Some of them make it well past 200. But there are tradeoffs to longevity that affect their memories, both short-term and long-term, as well as a number of sudden deaths.

There are also points where beauty and science mix. Descriptions of imported and genetically engineered Earth and plant wildlife are surprising and comforting at the same time. As far as sunsets go, Mars’ atmosphere extends much higher than Earth’s due to low gravity, and has lots of light-reflecting dust. Combined with atmospheric thickening from terraforming, and the characters get to admire sunsets that linger far longer than they do on Earth.

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose

A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. This novel was a publishing sensation in the early 1980s and sold as much as 50 million copies worldwide. Before his writing career took off, Eco was a professor of semiotics in his native Italy. For those not steeped in humanities jargon, semiotics is basically the study of symbols and symbolism. Semiotics are useful in literary interpretation, archaeological research, philosophy, psychology, and unbundling metaphors, allegories, and myths. In line with Eco’s sensibilities, his novel is chock full of symbols and allusions, most of which this reader likely missed entirely.

The Name of the Rose is also a book about books. One of the main characters is an elderly, blind librarian loosely modeled after the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’ stories heavily featured dusty old libraries with labyrinthine architecture, secret knowledge, and mystical qualities—much like the one Eco’s character, also named Jorge, curates.

One of the main themes I was able to detect was the lure of the forbidden. Monks are supposed to be celibate. Just as in real life, these monks were often not. Also true to real-life clergy, not all of their dalliances were with women. But at the same time, they were racked with guilt and were obsessed by it.

Without spoiling the book’s murder mystery too much, the murder weapon involves forbidden literature that the victims are unable to resist. The murderer’s crimes are an attempt to keep this forbidden fruit under wraps, and the monastery’s ultimate fate hinges on his success or failure. The biblical allegory involving forbidden fruit is very appropriate.

Some readers will also be puzzled that names and roses appear have no significance in the book except in the title. Eco did this on purpose. Part of the fun of this book is sleuthing for hidden meanings and symbols. Eco, clever semiotician that he is, chose a nonsense title to throw some readers off the trail.

Philip K. Dick – Electric Dreams

Philip K. Dick – Electric Dreams

Dick was a science fiction writer probably best known for movie adaptations of his books, which include Minority Report, Blade Runner, and Total Recall. This collection of 10 short stories is intended to accompany a recent tv miniseries based on those stories, which I haven’t seen. Each story includes a brief introduction by its accompanying episode’s director or screenwriter.

This was the first Philip K. Dick book I read, and apparently he wrote almost entirely dystopian stories. There is little in the way of Star Trek-style optimism and progress in this collection. The settings range from present-day (for him, mid-20th century) suburbia to the distant future. Most of the stories are on Earth, but a few are set in space or on other planets. Even the more normal settings have something off about them, whether it’s family members or local neighbors being possessed or taken over by aliens, or surveillance states stamping out any traces of dissent or self-expression in a pleasant-seeming society.

Some of the stories reminded me of some of The Simpsons‘ classic “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes; perhaps Dick was an influence on their writers. I mainly read these stories before going to bed. Though I enjoyed them, in hindsight, this may have been a mistake.

Douglas Adams – Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams – Mostly Harmless

The fifth and final volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Arthur Dent is finally settling down into a stable life, and even beginning to enjoy it. But then he has to go on one last adventure to save the universe, which is every bit as farcical as one would expect from a Douglas Adams book.

Early on, Adams throws some quality barbs at New Yorkers, such as “In New York, nobody is nice to each other without a reason.” When describing a written message regarding a phone call, “It was a 212 area code number, so it was someone in New York, who was not happy. Well, that narrowed it down a bit, didn’t it?”

Adams also expands the cast. Trillian, another human who escaped Earth’s earlier demolition is joined by her interdimensional analogue Tricia, from a world where she had stayed on Earth, which wasn’t destroyed. Arthur Dent also learns he is a father. He had earlier used sperm donations to fund his interplanetary travels, and Tricia used a sample to havea daughter named Random Dent. Thanks to the vagaries of time travel and interdimensional weirdness, she isn’t quite sure about her age. But she is definitely a full-throated teenager prone to instant mood swings and outbursts, though she does have her sympathetic points.

There is noticeably less joy in this book than in the earlier volumes, something I also noticed to a lesser degree in volume four. The book, and the series, ends with the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself being obliterated, a possible indication that Adams was more than ready to move on to other pursuits.

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

The story of the Joad family’s heartbreaking journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to Depression-wracked California. It can be a hard read, not just because of the characters’ exaggerated Okie dialect, but because the characters endure so much hardship through no fault of their own. For all his literary merits, Steinbeck was unfortunately not much of an economic analyst. Since much of his work was intended to make economic arguments, this causes some problems.

For starters, any first-year economics student can spot the common economic error in the following exchange on p. 241 of the Penguin edition (here’s a hint):

“Well, we all go to make a livin’.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “On’y I wisht they was some way to make her ‘thout takin’ her away from somebody else.”

In a market economy, people make money by creating value for other people—this is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. For one person to have more, does not mean that another person must have less. The zero-sum model is often accurate for cronyism and for government, but not for voluntary activity. Deals don’t happen unless all parties expect to benefit. Steinbeck seems unable to tell the difference between cronyism and capitalism.  His attacks on cronyism ring true, but he keeps calling them capitalism, inaccurately. Many of the injustices in the book, whether perpetrated by banks, farm owners, company store clerks, or others, persist only because they have backing from politicians or police.

The scene in which the above conversation takes place involves just such a confusion of markets and cronyism. Most of the California-bound Joad family is staying at a campground somewhere in New Mexico where the owner charges 50 cents per night. Tom Joad arrives to meet his family there hours later, after fixing up a car. The owner wants to charge Tom as well, since he wasn’t with his family when they first arrived.

Tom says if that’s how it is, then fine. He won’t put up a fight. He’ll camp down the road instead, where he can avoid being charged. The owner says there is vagrancy law on the books, and he’ll call the police if Tom does that. Paying up is his only option. Tom, who is a bit smarter than most of the other characters, asks if the local sheriff is his brother-in-law, since that is a pretty sweet arrangement for the campground owner.

Steinbeck portrays this as capitalism, unmoored by greed. He’s right that the campground owner is a greedy man of low character. But there is nothing capitalist or free-market about him. Tom has an available alternative he prefers to paying money—sleeping a little farther down the road. Instead, the campground owner is using a government law, backed by government police, to force Tom to pay money for a service he doesn’t want. What is free-market about that?

This was not the only economic confusion surrounding the Joads’ story. The movie version of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the few American films allowed to be shown in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Its depiction of American hardship and poverty at the hands of capitalist oppressors sent a message he wanted the Soviet people to hear.

It backfired. Most Soviet people who saw the movie instead came away in awe that in America, even the poorest of the poor could afford their own car. In the USSR, only the elites had access to cars. Moreover, the Joads could travel across the country without a work permit or an internal passport.

Steinbeck brilliantly shows how physically draining and spiritually crushing poverty is. He shows how important it is to make life more secure and dignified for people at the economic bottom. In my own work as a policy analyst, poverty eradication is one of the top criteria by which I judge public policies, from tariffs to occupational licensing to minimum wage laws. In that sense, Steinbeck offers a vivid reminder of why I do what I do. What policies can make life better for people like the Joads? While Steinbeck had his eye on the right prize, he also had a poor grasp of what keeps it out of peoples’ reach.