Tuesday, January 31, 2006
You know, I've noticed that as I age I recall less and less what I have just done. (From my youth I had always forgotten what I was supposed to do, but this forgetting what I have just done appears to be a progressive disease.) Among the many distressing examples of this disorder is my increasing inability to recall what books I have just read.
And so, as an aide to my own memoir, and hopefully for the marginal edification of my few, devoted readers, I'm inaugurating a book diary: a list, and brief commentary, on the books I've read in the past month. Herewith the first installment, for January, 2006.
(Where possible - well, actually, where convenient - I will link to the actual edition of the book in question that I read.)
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. What a gorgeous translation! I first tackled this classic doorstop on a trip through northeastern Europe (Budapest-Prague-all over Poland-Riga-Saint Petersburg-Stockholm-Helsinki) in (I'm pretty sure) the Constance Garnett translation. Opening the Pevear-Volokhonsky version, I was startled by the immediacy and the humor of the writing; the lugubrious of the Garnett was almost entirely lacking. The prose had a rougher texture, something you were conscious of in an entirely good way. Is it necessary for me to say anything about Dostoevsky? He's still worth grappling with. His characters are not fully convincing as people; they still bear too heavy a burden of allegory to truly come alive (though one great virtue of this translation is that the narrator approaches the status of a real character, which greatly enhances the novel). He is still in love with death, death's power to transform souls, something that properly should be distrusted. The right answer to "Nabokov or Dostoevsky?" is still "Tolstoy." Or, "Chekhov." But he and those who love him are still worth arguing with, even when - especially when - they are profoundly wrong.
Prisoner's Dilemma, by William Poundstone. I bought this book because I very much liked Labyrinths of Reason, which I read many years ago, and was interested in learning more about John von Neumann and his work. More of the book, I would say, is devoted to biography and history than to actual discussion of game theory. Unfortunately, Poundstone is strongest in explaining game theory for the layman; the biographical sections are interesting for their content, but rather artless. The book is organized to put the biographical info up front, followed by Cold War "context" history, followed by actual discussion of what game theory is. The author's purpose would probably have been better served by alternating chapters on history/biography and math, in the manner of Prime Obsession. But I still enjoyed it at the end of the day.
The Right War?: The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited by Gary Rosen. Rosen has collected a very good cross-section of conservative opinion on the war in Iraq from 2004 and 2005. Some of the pieces are rather too short to fully support their own arguments, but the flip side of this decision is that so many authors, with a variety of different perspectives, could be included. I had, unfortunately, read most of these pieces when they were originally published, so there was not too much new for me here. Silver lining: that meant this was a really quick read. More unfortunate was Rosen's decision to limit himself to post-war debate. It would have been useful to see to what extent people on both sides changed their tune over the course of the conflict, either because as the war progressed they changed their minds or because they did not change their minds, and (therefore) had to change their arguments. Some of the authors included refer to their earlier positions and relate their current views to what they have learned since then, but even so we are getting their own recollections of their past views rather than the straight dope. The biggest problem with this book, though, is that there is no actual debate; the various "sides" of the argument don't really engage each other beyond their initial salvos. Even when people are literally engaged in debate - as, for example, the famous Krauthammer-Fukuyama exchange from last year - the hottest engagements are not on substance but motive-questioning accusations. That is truly a shame. It does not speak well of our democracy, and in particular it speaks poorly of supporters of the war in Iraq, that the actual debate in the debate -engaging the opposition's arguments in detail and attempting to refute them - has been so thin. Silver lining: it is an excellent sign that the editor of Commentary thinks it would be a good idea if a real debate were happening, and hence edited this book.
The Facts of Winter, by Paul Poissel, translated by Paul Lafarge. Lafarge is a friend of mine, with two other books under his belt, The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction, the latter purportedly a translation from the French of a 1920s-era novel by the obscure poet Paul Poissel. Poissel really got his hooks into my friend, who began, Tlon-like, to fill the world with "incursions" from Poissel, including this website and the aforementioned Fait d'Hiver. The book is successful on its own terms: Poissel is a reasonably persuasive early 20th-century French poet, and this book of "manufactured" dreams sounds reasonably like the sort of thing Poissel would write. The concluding essay about Poissel also succeeds on its own terms: as a little short-story about a literary researcher and as a commentary on Lafarge's project of creating Poissel itself. The book is full of French puns (it's a facing-page translation) most of which I don't get because, well, I don't read French. If you do, and you like the period Lafarge/Poissel are working in, you'll probably really enjoy this little book. If you are Ross Douthat, you might find the book a little too . . . nice.
Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel Huntington. I would spend more time on this except that, if you want to learn more about this book, you can look pretty much anywhere; it was reviewed by everybody. Huntington makes several important arguments in the book - about the nature of American identity (as a settler society, and as a Protestant nation) and about the challenge of the current mass immigration (in terms of numbers, in terms of the dominance of a single, nearby country, and in terms of the lack of confidence of the culture that is absorbing them). But this book has three very serious weaknesses. First, it is not data-heavy enough. I don't mean that Huntington needs to dump lots of tables and charts in our lap. I mean that some parts of his argument need to be backed by data, and those parts are generally backed by the plural of anecdote. Second, it is insufficiently comparative in its method. Huntington compares America's current immigration with past immigration. He does not do enough to examine how other bi-cultural societies - Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, India, Israel, South Africa - have functioned or not functioned. If we are headed in the direction of an Anglo-Spanish bi-cultural state - one of the possibilities Huntington entertains - it behooves him to explore more seriously what such an outcome might mean, rather than simply say that this would be a big change from what America has been historically (which is true). Third, and finally, he seems to have gotten cold feet in his final chapter. Huntington comes close to arguing that one of the "solutions" to the problem of American identity in a new multi-racial and multi-cultural America is a reinvigoration of America as a Christian (even Protestant) nation - that is, to center American identity not in race or secular culture or in an abstract creed but in religion. There is considerable evidence that this is precisely what is happening, to some extent consciously: that precisely because we find it harder to call ourselves a white or Anglo nation, we are, in compensation, more and more thinking of ourselves as a Christian nation - the Christian nation par excellence. This is a stratum of American identity that goes very deep down, as Huntington shows. But instead of exploring how American identity is changing to revolve more closely around this specifically Christian axis, Huntington contents himself with pointing out America's religious "exceptionalism" among industrial nations, and leave it at that. The result is a much weaker conclusion than the book's early chapters presaged. In any event, very much worth reading and debating, but far from the definitive statement on the topic.
Now I'm in the middle of Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson. But I'll write about that when I'm finished with it, and the other books I read next month.