BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Wait, did I just say that? Yes, of course I did. I’m still alive, with a mind of my own. My home planet is green and wily enough to heal itself of all of mankind’s follies, eventually. There’s peace in that. Plus, we humans might still have a good run.
As Epictetus wrote almost 2,000 years ago, “I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.”
The first part of this passage sounds a little snotty for Epictetus, and, furthermore, not very applicable to my life. Why would I be laughing at anyone? I doubt seriously anyone is “trying to damage me,” and in any case my acquaintances surely know what I think. At least when it comes to the big stuff, I keep no secrets. I write everything down in these pages.
But I do recognize that the forces of history are, at this moment, mounting a not-so-subtle threat to the freedom of conscience that I practice here. Although I’m not expecting the midnight knock on the door next week or next month, I do realize that the growing ranks of reactionary yokelism, given the opportunity, would rather send in the cops and book burners than leave me in peace. They’ve been strong before: they’re looking for a comeback.
For now, though, “the things which are really mine and with which I live” remain inviolate. I added to my store of treasure in 2020 despite the raging of several convergent shit storms, and for that reason, it was a very good year.
Not-so-random Vonnegut quote to establish tone: “‘Sometimes the pool-pah,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bokonon translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God.'”
Hence my use of the phrase.
As usual, I had no plan, except to read, and comment. I read what I liked. I bookended the year (pun intended, I guess) with Joan Didion–Democracy, Miami, South and West, and Where I was From in January, then–what else?–The Year of Magical Thinking in December. It seemed apt. It was.
Mostly what I liked this year was Big Explainers, books that plotted the long course of culture, history, and human destiny.
I’ll start with the biggest. For years I had put off reading Jared Diamond’s landmark 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, but no longer. I read it this year, and it is superb. Diamond argues powerfully that it is not the innate cleverness of people in today’s developed nations that explains the wealth and order they enjoy. Rather, hundreds of thousands of years ago, climate and geography gifted certain parts of the earth with robust agricultural potential, mostly in the form of protein-rich grains. These, in turn, determined the sizes of local populations and eventual development of governing bureaucracies with concomitant needs for abstract knowledge. The rest is literally history. If you live where the growing was good in the late Neolithic age, lucky you.
A curious discovery: one reason why ideas and technology have tended to spread on an east-west axis rather than a north-south one is that good growing climates tend to resemble one another along latitudinal lines. As good ideas about cultivation spread left-right over the eons, so did other information. This is why, for example, the United States is more like China in complexity and social organization than Brazil.
Although I would not know it until I was well underway, I found a companion book to Diamond in Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Published in 2019, Gods of the Upper Air is a cultural biography of Franz Boas and his circle of grad student proteges, which included Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. Between Boas’s rise from obscurity in the 1880s and his academic prominence in the 1940s, he and his colleagues invented the discipline of cultural anthropology. In doing so, they debunked one of the firmest, most deeply-rooted myths in the Anglo-European consciousness, “an intensely modern fiction; that the highway of human social development led straight to us.” The human story did no such of thing, of course; it led every which way, and we are all simply along for whatever ride our ideas, totems and taboos take us on.
The excellent history The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 by Philipp Blom argues that technological change in turn-of-the-century Europe drove such rapid societal change, life was literally disorienting. People went crazy from not knowing what was happening around them because it was all happening so fast. I reviewed Blom here.
As satisfying as The Vertigo Years is, at 488 pages, it is a hundred pages too short. Somehow a book about the drama of rapid technological change failed entirely to address the invention of powered flight and its nearly immediate effects on culture, politics and the economy. Luckily, I was able to fill this gap by reading David McCullough’s biography The Wright Brothers. One thing many Americans might not know about the invention of the airplane is that is was primarily European demand for flight technology that drove Wright Brother’s pursuit of it. There were hardly any American believers in Wilbur and Orville’s mad scheme early on. McCullough recounts this history with page-turning energy.
Personally, I usually find McCullough stodgy and jingoistic. He has made a career of out of choosing unassailably patriotic topics (the Brooklyn Bridge! Lewis and Clark!) and praising them to high heaven. And although his bias as a court historian is evident throughout most of The Wright Brothers, he still occasionally brings out intrinsically thrilling themes and episodes. When the reader sits alongside Wilbur and Orville in their first Kitty Hawk beach shack in 1901–actually little more than a tent–and feels the burlap covering of their camp chairs as they sketch, calculate, plan and dispute, one experiences with them the highest form of human flourishing, which consists, not in consumption, comfort and and satiety, but in feverish inquiry and discovery. Wilbur and Orville are sitting on sackcloth; they are hungry, mosquito bitten, alone, but they just don’t care, they are so driven. They are possibly the happiest people on earth, and they are dirt poor.
McCullough also touches on the most socially consequential aspect of the Wright Brothers’ work–the pace of change it sparked. In 1908 Wilbur Wright, alone, flew his plane in front of 150 people in Le Mans, France. He was a barely known American inventor on the tenuous cusp of a breakthrough. Not one other plane on earth could fly like his in 1908, and no one else on earth knew how to pilot as he did. One year later, crowds of 50,000 would gather in Reims, France to watch 22 pilots race 22 different kinds of planes. The speed and extent of this breakthrough put me in mind of the first two driverless vehicle rallies, sponsored by the U.S. government and held in California’s Mojave Desert in 2004 and 2005. In the first year, not one car completed the 132-mile course, and most failed early and spectacularly. The best vehicle in 2004 didn’t even make seven and a half miles. The next year, every entrant but one passed that mark, and five vehicles completed the whole course. These days, they all finish; driverless cars are old hat. The Wright Brothers were perhaps the first human beings to acquaint us with this intense pace of technological change. You can reject it or embrace it, but the world is changing around you, accumulating and compounding social disruptions at a speed we are ill-equipped to grasp.
Americans, it turns out, were never really ready for modernity. For all our claims to be wise, critical and clear-sighted, we come from belief communities that were congenitally weird and gullible–you know: morons. See Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History for an elucidating study of the brazen credulity that has always distinguished Americans’ beliefs. I reviewed it here. It will make you weep for our epistemic lostness, or at least it should.
A more clinical diagnosis of our parlous grasp of reality can be found in Tom Nichols’s 2018 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. In a country where “nobody tells me what to think” is a real attitude, Nichols argues persuasively that the obligations of good citizenship include being informed consumers of expertise. Epistemic humility, not cognitive arrogance or in-the-know skepticism, is the order of the day. A nation that cherishes free thought and rebellion against authority, though, is always at risk of becoming acutely stupid, even if that nation has a bounty of accomplished and generous experts to help us find our way. Welcome to where we are though.
Perhaps the most satisfying book I read this year was David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (which I reviewed here). Whitman was not just a man stirred to poetry by the mystical promise of our country. Our country was falling apart before his eyes in the 1850s, and Whitman was on a very literal mission to try hold it together with a national cycle of poems. That’s why he wrote Leaves of Grass, and then kept rewriting it and rewriting it as America changed and went to war with itself. Read Reynolds for a wonderful exploration of how Whitman’s poetic development paralleled historic shifts in American politics and especially the struggle to abolish slavery. (Can’t wait to read Reynolds’s new book on Abraham Lincoln next year.)
Don’t tell my wife, but I fell in love with another woman this year and developed a crush on another one. I couldn’t help it: both of them are Big Explainers.
The most consequential book I read this year was Jill Lepore’s 2019 These Truths: A History of the United States. An endowed professor at Harvard, Lepore believes elite national historians should, at the peak of their careers, produce single-volume histories of their subjects, something that used to be traditional. The big picture needs to be painted. But for too long in recent decades, Lepore writes, U.S. historians have neglected big questions about the nation’s purpose and vision, tending instead to toodle around in arcane specialty areas. Americans, however, want to understand the epic story of their country, and as Lepore tartly points out, “They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” Ceding the field to whoever has an angle (Bill O’Reilly is America’s best seller of “history” books: let that sink in.) is a recipe for disaster. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” warns Lepore, “when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”
And so Lepore wrote These Truths as a corrective, a “common history for a people” to try to ward off the disaster of populism. “The American experiment rests on three political ideas–” Lepore writes in the introduction, “‘these truths,’ Thomas Jefferson called them–political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. [. . . ]. The real dispute is between ‘these truths’ and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” In the 900 pages of Lepore’s book, we get the best answer to this question an American historian has offered in decades. It is an extraordinary success.
Lepore is a heroine of the post-ideological world. She holds all of history in her hands but somehow manages to come across as a mom from down the street (which she is), a close friend who happens to be a Harvard professor. She writes angelically and effortlessly, it seems. One suspects that her frequent essays for the New Yorker are simply worked-up versions of her class notes, they appear so regularly. I fell head-over-heels for Lepore this year, also reading by her: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012); Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion of Jane Franklin (2013); The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010), reviewed here; Joe Gould’s Teeth (2016); This America: The Case for the Nation (2019); and her latest, just out in October, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future (2020). It would have been a very good year even had it only included Lepore.
But there was more. I also found I could not stop reading the novels of Lionel Shriver. Shriver is the ultimate topical novelist. She just keeps taking up subjects that define our national unease and laying them out in 3-D detail. Reading her books is like rubbernecking a freeway pileup but instead of being told to look away, Shriver says to us, “I know you want to look, so open your eyes and take in every last gory bit.”
And so Shriver has ended up documenting our national pathologies in high definition, from school shootings in We Need to Talk about Kevin (which I reviewed here as the novel of 1990s America); to morbid obesity in Big Brother (also reviewed here); to healthcare and dying in So Much for That (commented upon here); to national debt and monetary policy (yes, really) in The Mandibles (also reviewed here); to the political usefulness of terrorism in The New Republic. Shriver was easily my most reviewed author this year. I abhor her politics, which tend toward a kind of jaunty libertarianism, but I admire her artistic courage. And obviously I can’t resist her stories. Shriver is my nomination for the definitive turn-of-the-century American novelist. She shows us how the American Century came and went.
If you couldn’t tell, one of the main things I’m constantly seeking big explanations for is my country. I think any American could be forgiven for feeling they live in the most interesting country on earth, narcissistic as that sounds. I know I do. For me, this feeling springs from having experienced the denouement of the American Century at a far remove but in a way that felt up close–in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Italy, Germany–and then having to find my way into a new era that is certainly not the American Century anymore but which nonetheless bears the stamp of our ideas and ambition. How do I feel about all this? I suppose if a junior Roman bureaucrat who had spent most of his life administering things up in Gaul had felt sufficiently world-weary long about 430 C.E. to wonder what all the blood and treasure had been for, that’s what I would say I feel like right now. It feels like the Goths and Vandals already have their run of the place.
One of the best books I read this year spoke directly to this searching sense of melancholy. It was actually a re-read, and it was actually three books, not one–the America Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
I read Dos Passos to try to explain my country to myself. His is a story about freedom, identity, and how hemmed in Americans have always been by economics, even when riches are flowing our way. Money changes us, and we are always chasing money.
There are many broad themes laid over the stories of the characters’ lives in the series’ books–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–but the message that sticks with me is this: To prepare the American public to enter World War One, the government, led by Woodrow Wilson, had to force-feed our citizens certain grand and flattering myths that had always just sort of hung inertly in the air–myths about our national genius and moral benevolence and relationship with hard work. Today these ideas are easily recognizable as propaganda, but Wilson & Co. put a lot of effort into making them seem natural at the time. (For some excellent reading on how the media became the delivery system for such myths, see Walter Lippmann’s pathbreaking 1922 book Public Opinion.)
The active, deliberate promotion of our myths produced lasting social consequences, most of them bad. When Dos Passos has working class characters beaten down again and again in the America trilogy, it is almost always the war-going propaganda of the moneyed class that justifies the outrages. Dos Passos spares no details, for example, in retelling the lynching of Wesley Everest, a logger and labor rights activist on Armistice Day 1919 in Centralia, Washington. A World War One veteran, Everest was dragged from his jail cell by a an anti-union mob and hanged on the main bridge in the city. Some reports say he was castrated before the hanging. Who did this lynching? Dos Passos knows something about them:
The timber owners, the sawmill and shinglekings were patriots; they’d won the war (in the course of which the price of lumber had gone up from $16 a thousand feet to $116); . . . they set out to clear the reds out of the logging camps; free American institutions must be preserved at any cost.
The America trilogy is often described as a fascinating but pointless tapestry, a long series of character sketches and camera-eye impressions that goes nowhere. True, the series is light on plot, but it’s not true that it stops without a proper ending. The terrible climax of the trilogy is the execution in 1927 of Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, falsely convicted of murder. Dos Passos renders a bitter, devastating judgment on this event. The moneyed class, he writes, showed in executing Sacco and Vanzetti that it owned the state outright and could use its sanctioned monopoly on violence for whatever it wished. The American oligarchy may not be an overt dictatorship of terror, but Dos Passos reminds us that no nation can be brave and free if 99 percent of its citizens walk the streets bent down with knowing that the rich hold the the legal power of life and death over them.
Also deeply rewarding was a series of books as wide and storied as Texas–Robert Caro’s award-winning biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. To be honest, I only started reading the five-book series because I had to find out where Caro’s passion for political biography came from. I wasn’t all that interested in LBJ himself. Caro, who is 85 and has been a writer all his life, has only written about two politicians–LBJ and the New York City planner Robert Moses. After profiling Moses in the 900-page The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has basically spent his whole life since then researching and writing about LBJ. So, as I said, that’s why I took up Caro’s series.
I am only two books into The Years of Lyndon Johnson (which is still awaiting its fifth and final installment), but I will certainly finish it. It is Tolstoyan in its wide sweep of American and Texan politics. But it also illuminates Johnson as a Dostoyevskan figure, driven by raw ambition and demoniac exertions of will. Above anything else life had to offer, LBJ wanted to dominate other men. Though I didn’t take up Caro as a Big Explainer, that’s what he is. He assesses that LBJ is the pivotal U.S. president of the 20th century president. In trying to close the 100-year chapter of post-Civil War reconstruction and fulfill the promise of liberal governance, LBJ instead opened the door to unprecedented social change, which fueled fundamental distrust of the government. We haven’t been the same since.
I greatly appreciated Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which I reviewed here. The packaged impression that many westerners have of Soviets is that their lives were thoroughly dictated to them: they hated and feared their political masters and never authentically believed in the ideology the Kremlin forced down their throats. This is how we like to picture the subjects of the USSR, as subjugated victims, waiting for the capitalist west to free them. The most important message of Secondhand Time is that, contrary to this view, many Soviets really did believe what they were taught, even if they knew their teachers were brutes. It turns out that real people found real reasons for believing in communism despite the horrors, large and small, that propped it up–the gulags, the informants, the secret police, the cult of Stalin, the show trials, the bread lines, the work camps, the mass relocations. Alexievich does the hard, honest work of reporting on the lives and memories of these real people.
(Wanting to make sense of the Soviets’ means of oppression, I also read Gulag: A History and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Appelbaum. Both are excellent.)
Here is another aspect of communism that sticks in most Americans’ craws: that it could possibly grow in the soil of American political culture. But it did, and, moreover, American communists “prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was,” as Vivian Gornick’s mother told her in the 1960s. Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism invites the reader to examine the widespread belief that communism–or any form of leftism–is organically un-American. Americans are political freedom fighters, Gornick reminds us, and some Americans wish to be free of crass consumerism and structural poverty as an imposed way of life. In the 1930s and 40s such Americans joined the communists in the thousands, out of a glowing conviction that “the party was possessed of a moral authority that lent concrete shape to a sense of social injustice made urgent by the Great Depression and World War II.” If you don’t have time to read Gornick’s 300-page book, she summarizes its arguments vividly in this essay in the New York Review of Books of April this year.
Toward the end of the year I read Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Sometimes I wish I weren’t an amateur literary critic, and this was one of those times. The thing is, I was expecting The Overstory to beam out a life-changing message of immense power and beauty. That’s why it had been on my list since last year. The book is about the unimaginably large, patient role of trees in sustaining life as we know it. I was deeply moved and enlightened by The Overstory, which is why I didn’t enjoy having a few small misgivings about it along the way.
So first, don’t get me wrong. The Overstory is great. It is, in various places, subtle; it is deeply informative; it is passionate without being preachy; and it is, in the end, wise. The last hundred pages are near heartbreaking in their depiction of lost and bereft humans conjuring up hope from less than nothing. But it suffers from three nagging imperfections. First, for its overall stylistic excellence, it is occasionally noticeably conventional, even vapid. Two activists take off for a protest one day on “an unbelievably beautiful morning.” Although there are only a handful of these clunkers–maybe half a dozen in a 500-page book–they stand out because the rest of the writing is so good.
Second, one of the main characters, Olivia, remains bafflingly vague in how she came to care about trees as deeply as the plot demands of her. She simply has a near-death experience, which awakens her to ethereal presences that turn out to be arboreal. End of backstory: the trees are trying to reach her. In a book that should be making exquisite and compelling arguments for real, existing tree love (and often does), Powers just inserts a supernatural proxy into Olivia’s head somewhere offstage. And again, the flaw stands out for its stark exceptionalism. Most of Powers’s characters are beautifully drawn, in ways that illuminate their connections to the natural world and broaden the reader’s imagination.
Third, the almost smug satisfaction that some of Powers’s characters feel at the prospect that Earth’s biosphere will fight back and cleanse itself of the human stain is uncomfortably close to the religious fanatic’s lurid desire for apocalypse. I know this feeling, because I have a grain of sympathy with it. It is the idea that Kurt Vonnegut voiced when he hoped this aloud:
When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, “It is done. People did not like it here.”
It is the novelist’s job, of course, to fictionalize real people with real feelings, so I am not quite blaming Powers for portraying characters who evince this ungenerous attitude. I suppose my unease is with myself. It’s somehow okay–even enjoyable, a kind of atheist’s pornography–to observe the religious believer wishing childishly for all of humanity to be extinguished as a price for taking him out of the picture. It is less satisfying, though, to encounter a shadow of this attitude in oneself. It is never pleasant to discover one’s own blind spots.
Which leads to my next book, a different kind of Big Explainer. Big explanations almost always come packaged in imperative and declarative sentences. Here, they say; believe this.
In one of the most searching books I read this year, a different kind of explanatory argument is made, in the form of a question. If Europe laid such confident claim to reason as the pathway to ending human suffering (through the project of Enlightenment), how did it end up inflicting so much suffering on so many? Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by Laszlo Foldenyi, is a collection of essays that probes this and related questions about inadequacy of reason to reflect humanity’s whole, true self. There is a vast part of human life–and it can even be an imaginative, fulfilling life–that has nothing to do with being an enlightened European or believing in John Rawls’s theory of justice. While we cannot, and should not deny the clear, systematic advantages bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment (vaccines, anyone?), Foldenyi inspires us to ask, in the tradition of Dostoevsky, what price we might pay if we deny there is a dimension of our existence that is not bounded by–and therefore not ameliorable by–reason. There is a real part of us that may take real nourishment from Walpurgisnacht. I am instinctively skeptical of the romantic line of inquiry, but as long as it is taken by thinkers as humane and intelligent as Foldenyi, it deserves serious attention.
Reading Foldenyi turned me on to the unusual 1975 Holocaust memoir novel Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz. This sounds impossible, but Kertesz tells of a journey from 1944 Budapest to near death in Auschwitz and back in an off-kilter tone that can only be compared to The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek. Like Schweik and his participation in World War One, Kertesz’s antagonist, trundled off to Auschwitz, accepts, almost cheerfully, the inner logic of the camps and every part of his experience in them. Back in Budapest after the war, he rejects the advice of his friends and family to obliterate his memories of the camps and make a completely clean break with the past. A real life, he protests to them, is a continuum; it cannot be broken off and started again. Auschwitz is part of him. Fatelessness is a meditation on what it means in extremis to accept time and chance as worthy of determining our identities.
For all the long, ruminative books I read this year, the one that really electrified me was short and powerful. It hit me like double espresso. It was Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, the book that aired the ideas that dissolved the Iron Curtain and ended authoritarian rule in eastern and central Europe in the 20th century. I close with a few remarks on it, and my own weird country.
The problem that confronted the dissident Havel in 1977 Czechoslovakia was this: The countries of the Warsaw Pact were ruled by a regime grounded in lies so crude that not even a child could believe them. Everyone knew they were being lied to all the time about things big and small–factory output, the availability of bread, everything. How could this work as a system? Guns and tanks were not enough. Certainly guns and tanks could be used–and were used–to help hold the lies together, but they couldn’t do all the work all the time. The thing Havel discovered is that, for the system to work, ordinary human beings had to accommodate the lies and live as if they were true. Sincerity was not necessary. Havel explains:
Individuals need not believe all the mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
Many of my fellow citizens live within and accommodate a ghoulish complex of lies that outdo the Soviets’ in terms of sheer audacity. They say an election has just been stolen from their dear leader, who is secretly crusading against a cabal of child-trafficking, blood-drinking Jews and leftists. They say anyone can see what is happening; the evidence is so obvious they take it as a mark of disingenuousness to ask for it. A former three-star general openly incited sedition in support of this movement this very week. As I noted at the start, the jackals and troglodytes of reaction have been strong before, and they want a comeback.
The most humiliating thing for adults living in America still capable of competent citizenry is, unlike Havel’s fellow denizens of the Warsaw Pact, who were subjugated by Soviet arms, no one is forcing the trumpist louts to mouth these crude and childishly stupid lies. This is a voluntary movement of vehement delusion.
So, what is to be done? Havel called for the simplest, most powerful of antidotes–living within the truth. Create an inviolable self that answers to its inner priorities of creativity and discipline. Insist on a governing system that reflects the discipline and understanding necessary for this project. Will this be enough? Not even Havel knew, back in 1977. But he knew enough to admit democracy’s victory was not inevitable. The system of mass delusion could be kept up by active measures, he warned, “coming closer to some dreadful Orwellian vision of a world of absolute manipulation, while all the more articulate expressions of living within the truth are definitively snuffed out.”
2020 was a very good year. I insisted on articulating expressions of living within the truth. The results may have been embarrassingly bad, but at least I kept a light on, showing the jackals and troglodytes where they will have to knock if they want to send in the book burners. 2021 will be a very good year too.