BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The best thing about being a citizen of a republic of letters is that you always feel at home, no matter where your feet are planted on Earth. The books you read hold you in place.
You can always submerge yourself in fascinating stories about what it means to be human. I think we can all relate to that. For about 30 years now I have believed that all good novels are in some way about human destiny–being “prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Orwell wrote that in the last year of his life.
Orwell is known as the ultimate political thinker. But the funny thing is, politics came in a distant second place for him in the overall scheme of life. Orwell viewed political systems as powerful corruptors of human feeling and believed that you had to perfect a feeling of loyalty among your intimates first, before you could hope to achieve anything in politics. Hear, hear.
Looking back, I spent an unusual amount of time this year enjoying familiar places in the old republic of letters, re-reading just about every major novel that is important to me, revisiting old intimates. I hatched no plan to do this; it just happened.
Of course, I re-read Ninety Eighty-Four, twice. The second time through (this year), I wrote some detailed notes about the first two chapters, analyzing Orwell’s thoughts on privacy and moral decency line-by-line. I live for that sort of thing. Reading Orwell as an adult is what reading the Bible was for me as a child.
The background reading for my re-look at Nineteen Eighty-Four was Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society, a philosophical consideration of collective moral responsibility. The whole point of having the institutions that form society, Margalit argues, is to prevent us humiliating our fellow man. In the present moment of assertive stupidity and coarseness and hostility toward the weak, I cannot recommend The Decent Society highly enough.
A great novel reveals the large-scale forms of life that have crept over humanity without our noticing them–the million and one little decisions we humans have made which could have gone this way or that and which in the end add up to unassailable systems. The most important novel to me in the world is The Castle, by Franz Kafka, because it shows how the office has in this manner become a predominant form of social organization. The implements and principles of bureaucracy dictate our routines and tyrannize our lives. I re-read The Castle for about the tenth time, because I am always wondering if we humans are doing the right thing. We should choose the things that tyrannize us carefully, I think.
I also re-read Don Delillo’s Underworld. I consider it the best American novel of the 20th century. Published in 1998, it plots the subconscious trendline of our country as we groped in the dark toward Y2K and the strange future that globalization brought. If you believe, as I do, that 9/11 rather than “changing everything” about America actually caused us to become more who we already were, Delillo’s masterpiece will speak to you. It showed what our anxieties consisted in just before 9/11 pushed us over the edge.
Probably because I regard Underworld as the American Magic Mountain, I also went back and re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It is certainly one of the best novels of the 20th century, possibly the best. If Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is a novel about the existence of God, as is often said, The Magic Mountain is a novel about the existence of philosophical dualisms upon which European intellectual culture is built–mind-body, war-peace, sickness-health, east-west, action-contemplation, and the one that anchored them all for Mann–space-time. Mann writes from a Kantian tradition that says the mind imputes basic dualisms (including space-time) to reality as a necessary entry point to sense-making. Whether the dualisms really exist we may never know. Mann takes you down the rabbit hole of this unknowing, if you care to go.
I re-read much of Nietzsche, prompted by the very stimulating biography of him, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux. Although there is no good way to simplify Nietzsche’s ideas, Prideaux does a wonderful job of humanizing him as a writer and making the evolution of his thought accessible to almost anyone. It is the book for getting at Nietzsche if you have ever thought of trying but put it off.
I doubt many Americans know of The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, which is a pity. Set as World War One opens, Schweik is a drunken, simpleminded wag who subverts every aspect of Europe’s war fever by volunteering vociferously to fight for God and empire. He is too good a soldier. A comic antihero, Schweik is what would happen if Sancho Panza were the main character instead of Don Quixote.
Actually, the eve of World War One was kind of a theme for me this year. I also read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. Musil’s novel is a long (1,000 pages!) meditation on how the elites of Central Europe sleepwalked into the catastrophe of total war. Your grasp of Vienna’s special place in Europe’s intellectual history, from Freud to Klimmt to Wittgenstein, can only be improved if you take in Musil’s slow-moving masterpiece.
The Proud Tower was a revelation, easily one of the best books I read this year. Tuchman has an amazing gift for historical narrative. Exhibit One: she manages to make a 50-page chapter on Richard Strauss un-put-downable, a completely engrossing story of European elites not so much sleepwalking toward war as giddily clamoring for it–fiddling as they prepared to burn Rome, so to speak.
Enticed by what he believed was Nietzsche’s overthrow of conventional morality, in the 1910s Strauss writes operas that lead the Germans first on a “roaming of the gutter,” luxuriating in vices dark and decadent ranging from plain sexual scandal to depictions of sadistic murder and dismemberment. From these lower depths, Strauss rises up and goads das Volk toward a peak of cultural resentment. Strauss composed one over-the-top masterpiece after another at the pinnacle of a century of German cultural achievement, marked by Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe. “What they lacked and hungered for,” Tuchman writes of the Germans, “was the world’s acknowledgment of their mastery.” (This dynamic itself embodied a Hegelian idea, which Tuchman curiously fails to note.) At the lead of this national longing for recognition, Strauss helped drive his countrymen to war, anthemizing their grievances in “an atmosphere of uproar; everything was larger, noisier, more violent than life.” Well, we all know what came next. While Germany certainly did not embody everything that was wrong with the world in 1914, its ills remain a useful focal point for understanding the history of so many of our man-made catastrophes.
Randomly accessed quote on this theme: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history . . . . [S]ome vast shaking of the soul, [the crowd] brings with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day . . . .” (Don Delillo, Underworld)
It was not all Sturm und Drang in 2019, of course. The year had its lighter moments too.
I ended up–I can’t recall how–re-reading The Code of the Woosters, which is certainly the masterpiece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves novels. But of course, you cannot simply read The Code of the Woosters alone, forming as it does, the middle of a trilogy that is the best run of all the Wooster and Jeeves books. So, of course, I went back and re-read Right Ho, Jeeves and Joy in the Morning. It’s amazing to me how Wodehouse’s comedic writing has held up for more than a century. In a way, it’s sad to think that his humor might pass away, but I suppose it will. I know, for example, that certain lines in Shakespeare are said to be funny, but I have never actually laughed at any of them. Does the same fate await Wodehouse? Do yourself an immensely pleasurable favor and read him while he is till fall-down funny.
Even the new books I read this year had something old about them. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, I was reminded why I enjoyed his standout 2001 book The Corrections so much. Franzen is an unreconstructed throwback of a novelist. With hardly any “theory” or attack on literary convention to guide him, Franzen simply delivers thick, savory stories about his contemporary countrymen using plot, theme, and characterization. Dickens would be proud.
The best “new” novel I read this year was A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. It was a delight from start to finish. Lighter than the only other Naipaul novel I’ve read, A Bend in the River, Biswas somehow also manages to be more deeply satisfying than that grim story. It is about a poor man seeking enough money to buy his own house so he can have something like a life. Don’t we all want something like that? I often wonder why the political right has such a paucity of literary forces behind it. Naipaul is a rare literary standard bearer of the right.
Reading Tom Wolfe’s final (2012) novel Back to Blood also felt like a comfortable reminiscence. I came late to Wolfe. The first novel I read by him was his buzzy and engaging A Man in Full, which came out in 1998. Ostensibly about stoicism, wealth, and the new American economy (it really could float on air!), A Man in Full was really about the place where Wolfe set his story–Atlanta. It’s a wonderful portrait; take it in if you have time. A magnificent chronicler of America, Wolfe has always told us exactly where things are happening.
Back to Blood continues this theme, and although Wolfe’s plot is a little formulaic this time, his sociologist’s antennae are still finely tuned. America is fracturing, he observes. Vanishing is the idea that wealth, splashed plentifully and haphazardly across the land would unite us, and, sated, we would become one people under money or God or democracy–or whatever it was we thought we were getting out of this grand experiment. And so, moving the epicenter of the American Dream southward from A Man In Full‘s Atlanta to Miami, Wolfe reports on a great American climbdown. From a people defined by ideals, we are reverting to to a patchwork of tribal identities. Miami’s confection of Cubans, African Americans, Jewish retirees, and Russian nouveau riche occupies center stage in this menagerie. Want to know why every white mayor of a major American city hires a black chief of police if he can? You already know, but read Wolfe anyway. Read him for his final report on America.
I read two rewarding books by famous American malcontents–Pornography, by Andrea Dworkin, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One word that inevitably comes up when you mention either of these figures is radical. Strictly speaking, this is a fair and appropriate use of the word. Both writers are trying to get at the root (Latin: radix) of a troubling issue.
But of course, radical usually has negative connotations, often meant to disparage someone as extreme, wild-eyed, overwrought or infirm. But when you read Dworkin and Malcolm X, two sharply countervailing qualities come into view. First, it is clear that both writers acquired their “radical” antipathies honestly, not through any liberal act of re-imagining. Dworkin was brutally abused by her husband, who pushed her to be more exhibitionist in her sexuality. She also met many women who had been monstrously coerced into becoming porn “performers.” Dworkin knew whereof she spoke when she unmasked pornography as a not-quite-victimless crime. If the claim strikes you as “radical” (in the scurrilous sense) that pornography is an industry set up and monetized by men for men, to advance a view of men as physically dominant over women and deserving of complacent, adulatory attention, you should probably try to work out what you think pornography really is.
As for the case of Malcolm X, the opening paragraph of his autobiography paints picture of definitive racial violence in, well, primary colors. It is imperishable among American letters for its cold clarity:
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha . . . .
Malcolm X’s father had a troublesome turn of mind, it emerges, because he had never felt quite welcome in white America. Three of his five brothers had been killed by white men, one by lynching. He and a fourth brother would eventually die at the hands of whites too. Born into this world, was it “radical” for Malcolm X to conclude that America had a white problem rather than a black one?
Second, far from sounding undisciplined, the voices of Dworkin and Malcolm X both strike notes of steady erudition and reasonableness. Their prose reflects a calm command of facts and arguments not to be found in a firebrand. Dworkin is extremely well read and would have become an insightful, highly readable writer in whatever field she ended up in had she not become a “radical, militant feminist.” Malcolm X, for his part, literally read his way up from street hustler to Muslim Nation revolutionary, to cold-eyed social critic. His life is a project in learning.
I also read a good many topical books this year, some of which I already reviewed here. Educated, by Tara Westover, was phenomenal, as was Dopesick, a profile of the opioid crisis, by Beth Macy. I thoroughly enjoyed Spying on the South:An Odyssey Across the American Divide. In it, Tony Horwitz (who died tragically just months after finishing the book) retraces the route of Edward Olmsted through the antebellum South, getting to know the people behind populism.
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media and War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century were both excellent analyses of the ever-blurrier distinction between online and offline war. Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation was a frightening reminder that this new war is happening in the hearts and minds of our own people. Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States made the worthy point that jackassery as a political style did not emerge fully formed in 2016–it has a history, much of which played out over the airwaves in the 1980s and -90s.
This seems as good a place as any to mention Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which was so good I read it twice. In it, Lynskey reminds us that Orwell believed radio was an inherently authoritarian medium, enabling as it did, a single voice to present itself as the consensus of masses. (Orwell had conflicted feelings about working as a broadcaster at the BBC.)
Finally, I read several books about artificial intelligence, anchored by Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom. I read about AI because I want to know what kind of world our machines will create for our children. Technological change is approaching at an inhuman pace, which is precisely what the computer scientists shaping our future are aiming for. They are designing algorithms that will be better at designing algorithms than humans. When this tipping point happens, all of life will change irrevocably. Algorithms, we know not which, will lead us to our destinies.
My immediate response to this prospect is immense sadness. When my father died, he could have possessed (and probably did possess) a roughly accurate picture of how life would unfold for his kids, even decades in the future. In our 70s we might be boarding a new model of Boeing jet or interacting with a new kind of communication device, but the shape and elements of our future lives would still resemble those of his own. He could entrust us to the future because it was tractable.
The AI-driven future that awaits my children, though, defies imagination, and I don’t mean the way a sci-fi movie defies imagination, with photon torpedoes and intergalactic visitors. What I mean is, AI could destroy the supervening forms of social organization we have created here on Earth which have made our lives recognizably human for millennia.
Take work. I will do my best to help my kids prepare for work, possibly even careers or professions. But will there be such things as jobs or professions in a future where AIs will outperform humans in almost all kinds of knowledge work? Machines will be our entrepreneurs; they will set the pace of change and design the technologies that determine our modes of social organization. Name an institution that anchors your imagination in a recognizable past–school, family, clinic, church, sports team. Its existence will soon be up for grabs. We are giving machines the power to re-wire society right now.
Don’t believe me? Do you have a smart home assistant? Does it influence the behavior of your family? If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have purchased it. The Alexa of 2050 will likely anticipate, tailor and deliver whatever neural correlates of essential human acts you and yours used to get from the real world, including sex, exercise, doctors’ visits and so forth.
Call me a wild-eyed radical if you wish, but there is no denying that the transfer of innovative power to machines is precisely what AI specialists are trying to do, and this makes it a real threat. If I went about saying the sky was falling you would be right to call me a nut. But if it turned out there were an entire global industry of physicists doing their damnedest night and day to figure out how to make the sky fall, would you still call me a nut? Their task might sound like madness, but that does not stop them from pursuing it. And pursuing it they are.
But back to work and its place in the future. How many “professions” will my children have to have in such a fast-changing world? I had two, and some people considered that excessive. My kids might go through four or five before they just decide there is no point. Let the machines cope. It’s their world, after all.
The historian Juval Noah Harari looks ahead to this future (in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I also re-read this year) and says the best things we can teach our children are flexibility and resilience. They will probably live longer than us and certainly will have to adapt to technological change that outpaces anything we have known. It will also reshape the institutions that held our lives in place.
The old republic of letters might prove useful to our children too. As I said, you can feel at home in it no matter where your feet are planted on Earth and–I suppose–no matter how much the Earth is changing around you. Will our children’s ideas of human destiny be at all like ours, which have seemed familiar to us since the Greeks? I hope that they will, but maybe that’s just an old superstitious attachment. Whatever they do, they should write about themselves, the only thing that has kept us sane so far.