On the surface, I feel much like John Oliver did in bidding farewell to 2016. It was an ugly year.
But hope can’t be kept down, even in the heart of the realist. The American philosopher Richard Rorty had a fancy way of putting this. He said even if we live lives of private irony, we must rise to achieve public hope.
What did he mean? In our deepest selves we can never be 100 percent sure our beliefs are correct. We can spend our whole lives racking up evidence in their favor, but we can never rule out the possibility of (a) a disconfirming case that comes careening in from left field, or (b) the appearance in our lives of a new perspective that compels us to go back and re-interpret all the evidence that led us to where we are. The inner acknowledgment that we will never come safely to harbor is what Rorty means by private irony.
It is a willingness to live with incompleteness.
But the thing is, we can’t stay ironists all the time. We have to get up each morning ready to face the world on our own terms, not waiting slackly for the advent of new evidence or fresh perspectives to overthrow our basic beliefs. We have to at least hope that we’re right, even as competitors to our best ideas constantly rise up to challenge us. This is what Rorty means by public hope. Our mechanisms for coping with incompleteness should be optimistic ones.
It’s a paradox, like so much of philosophy. There’s no safe harbor out there, but by God, you take the wheel and turn your ship into the wind. And like Conrad’s Captain McWhirr in Typhoon, you sail as if there were a harbor out there, on the other side of the gale. “Facing it, always facing it,” McWhirr tells his first mate. “That’s the only way to get through.”
My public hope is that more and more people will be persuaded that cruelty is the worst thing we do. Not blasphemy, not disloyalty to an idea, nor any other kind of thought crime. Shooting, clubbing, bombing, gassing and flaying each other alive are far worses than insulting the the gods that demand such sadism. I’m not sure I’m right about that, but I hope I am. Until something better comes along, the principles of liberal democracy are the most life-affirming ones we have.
Reading is vital to me because it cuts straight to the place in my mind where private irony and public hope fight for balance. To be fully alive, I think, we have to routinely expose our deepest beliefs to competition. We have to take the risk of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I think Socrates said something to the effect that an untested belief is not worth having. So reading is, for me, the crucible that tests beliefs and decides which one are worth having. For now.
With so much at stake then, reading is always, for me, something more than just picking up one damn book after another. Or is it? I don’t really have a reading plan. I do, in fact pass the years by picking up one damn book after another, and I heartily enjoy it. Self-discovery is no less reawarding, I find, for being haphazard.
If Rorty is right—if we do live in a contested equilibrium between private irony and public hope—it follows that even random book choices should carom back and forth between the two poles to converge on a point that indicates, roughly, one’s present location.
So here are the books I read in 2106, more or less at random, that tested my ideas or at least tickled my fancy and helped indicate my present location.
Harlot’s Ghost, 1,300 pages by Norman Mailer, is what I read in February after two months’ work on a proposal for a fellowship I did not win. It brought me back to literature after too long away. I wanted a splurge. Sometimes a good spy must piss on a live man hanging on the wall of an underground gay-drag bar in postwar Berlin, Mailer tells us. It’s the kind of thing he says a lot.
In The New American Militarism Andrew Bacevich warned that our pursuit of military supremacy is becoming an obsession.
Psmith Journalist, by P.G. Wodehouse, was raucously funny and gave me a line I thought I’d like on my gravestone: “I stagger on. I do not repine.” I’d love to have something funny on my gravestone, but on the other hand, repining would be precisely what I would be doing under the circumstances, my staggering days having come signally to an end. It was just a thought.
Francis Fukuyama’s two longish books on the formation and subsequent decay of political insitutions were mind-blowing in their scope and liveliness. Tomes is the dreadful word that usually comes to mind for big books about politics, but these snapped like a string of firecrackers you want to keep going.
Speaking of long books, Orhan Pamuk’s meditative novel A Strangeness in My Mind, told a humble, beautiful love story inside a trenchant social history of modern Istanbul. Entrancing and political.
I struggled manfully through Henry James’ long, wearisome The Golden Bowl only on the promise I would write a very profane review of it. Which I did.
The revelation of the year was Don Delillo’s Underworld. It shook my view of American literature. It is unquestionably an American masterpiece, a book that stands up to a century of competitors. All the while the voices of Underworld tell a towering cultural history of Cold War America, subliminal signs gather to point like a prophet to the advent of 9/11. Delillo sings new harmonies.
Can a journalist write the Great American Novel? Theodore Dreiser tried, with An American Tragedy. He told a heartbreakingly good story but still fell short of his mark. Every sentence in a great novel must be excellent. Dreiser stumbled.
Jessica Mittford’s memoir, Hons and Rebels, was a triumph, and a surprising pleasure. Today we have the Kardashians, big-boobed celebrities-becase-they-are-celebrities. The six Mittford sisters of mid-century English aristocracy, though, glowed with wit and brio; ran away to the Spanish civil war, had a crush on Hitler, contemplated killing him. That sort of thing. Jessica wrote about it all with side-splitting humor.
I read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with high expectations. Although it has satisfying moments where villains, large and small, get their commeuppance, it doesn’t burst with anything new. Eight hundred odd pages without a single quotable passage.
Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, easily lived up to its reputation as one of the 20th century’s funniest novels. Anyone who has ever been annoyed by anyone or anything must, at some point, gaze on this, the malcontent’s Ark of the Covenant.
I read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter because Orwell gave it such a bad review. I wanted to see what the trouble was. Although it was bad for all the reasons Orwell noted, it was also my first ticket to Greeneland. And once you’ve visited, you can’t not go back.
Greeneland is the universe of conflicting romantic and idealistic impulses as navigated by the guilty religious conscience. In Greeneland, men turn up the collars of their trenchcoats, string up mosquito nets in their jungle camps, drink too much, and too early. Something is assailing them. Although they may not know quite what it is, they are usually trudging straight toward it. They know they are doomed. Orient Express was a thrilling, dark journey to its center.
Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh: the best novel ever written about journalism.
In Ending Up, Kingsley Amis tried to tease humorous morals out of the increasingly difficult last quarter of human life. He possibly succeeded, and possibly caused me to lose an ultramarathon.
Kingsley’s son, Martin, presented a book of exquisite, in some ways consoling, essays on 9/11, The Second Plane. Only now can I read them.
It was a good year for topical books. I found Kevin Kruse‘s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America highly revealing.
I preceded Kruse with Upton Sinclair’s little-known diatribe against religion’s pact with organized money, The Profits of Religion. Every American should read it.
Not every American will be able to stomach the book I read next, Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State. He does a number on both. I read Bakunin not because I have any sympathy with anarchism, but because I wanted to see if the idea had a coherent argument behind it. The short version: I doubt anyone actually understands anarchism today, as Bakunin and fellow founders Proudhon and Kropotkin articulate it. We are allergic to reading books that are pre-judged as offensive or wack-o. Test yourself, though, I say. Pick up a copy of any of these guys from Amazon for free.
Ok, I’ll have to kill a few birds with one stone here. I discovered Evelyn Waugh this year. In addition to Scoop, I binge-read Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and Put Out More Flags. I think Waugh may be the greatest English stylist of the 20th century. His ability to subvert ethical matters large and small with killing wit is simply overpowering.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali poured out a shot of anti-Islamism, neat, in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. The core beliefs of Islam, she says, are sharply at odds with the human rights revolution that has definitively shaped the West since 1776. If Islam wants to catch up, it will have to ditch its basic principles, as Christianity did when it reformed.
I also read Gore Vidal’s Empire. It tells of the fateful historical moment in 1898 when America stopped being a live-and-let-live republic and started going abroad to seek monsters and add territory.
There are so many Wodehous novels about Wooster and Jeeves: where to start? Right Ho, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters, and Joy in the Morning make up the (nicely sequential) heart of the series. I finally read the last one this year. Timeless and perfect.
While grandstanding a bit about my own brand of atheism in this blog, I read A.C. Grayling’s wonderful book The God Argument, which establishes him firmly as the Fifth Horseman oft he Apocalypse (joining Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris).
Impressed, I went on to Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, which makes a powerful case that the Allies (mainly the British) were wrong to bomb German civilians in World War Two.
Among the Dead Cities led me to read Günter Grass’s Crabwalk, in which Grass does what perhaps only he has the moral authority to do—open an honest conversation about German war grief.
The Stoics figured prominently and helped lead me beyond the half-century point, nobly, I hope. Marcus Aurelius’s Medtitations was excellent in places but distractingly repetitive. Cicero’s On the Shortness of Life was bountiful. For my money, Epictetus’s Enchiridion (sometimes “translated” as How to Live) delivered the gold standard in Stoicism.
John Grisham should have left the sex scenes out of Gray Mountain. It was otherwise a good muckraking novel.
I ended the year with Steven Pinker’s monumental 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Rather than gushing now about how every educated person needs to read it, I’ll keep my powder dry for a proper review sometime in the new year. See you then.