Age of Anger

So first, the good: this is a beautiful book, and Mishra has a wonderful command of literature, especially revolutionary literature of the 18th and 19th century. In this book he describes how the present “age of anger” can be understood in terms of those centuries – how the death of old institutions (e.g. religion, tribe) in favor of a commercial world that most people will fail in, results in a deep state of nihilism and longing, which can manifest in anarchy, fascism, and violence.

Literary snobbish types (such as myself) tend to enjoy this sort of thing. I mean, he’s explaining Trump in terms of Nietzsche! And he does it with the flair and verve of Lenin. He has that old style of writing, recently revived, in which all of society and history can be explained if you just grok a few basic ideas about history and human nature.

The problem is I’m not sure it’s true. Partially, I’m a bit biased against this book, having recently read Graeme Wood’s delightful “The Way of Strangers” about understanding ISIS. This is relevant because Mishra frequently cites ISIS as a manifestation of the product of human dislocation in the modern world.

In a way, Wood’s theory can be brought along with Mishra’s – both note that ISIS fighters are frequently young people, often criminals, who know nothing about Islam. In fact, both Mishra and Wood point out the stories of ISIS fighters reading “Islam for Dummies.” But, Wood makes a point that is very contra to Mishra – that we make a mistake if we try to center all this around Europe and the rise of commerce, to the extent that we neglect the fact that Salafis really actually believe their religion.

More importantly to the dorky part of my brain, I have trouble with Mishra’s ideas when I look around the world. Are things bad? In many ways, yes. Trump freaks me out. It may be the case that racists and race separatists are more open with their views.

On the other hand, if Mishra is right and we live in an especially nihilistic world, where old institutions are all collapsing as we spend all our time on social media coveting each others’ lives… why isn’t the modern world more violent than the past? It’s not as if you find a world of peace in those past ages where religion and tribal allegiance reigned. Maybe Voltaire was kind of a prick, and maybe the Enlightenment wasn’t on behalf of the common man, but were the crusades or the Inquisition these things either?

For a book so well-versed in the past, it seems to paint the present as overly important. For example, toward the end of the book, Mishra talks about McVeigh’s experience of the death of the American dream during the economic crises starting around 1970. Sounds interesting, sounds plausible. Except, well, consider any other 40 or so year period. Do you find it devoid of conflict and economic desolation? 1930-1970? 1890-1930? 1850-1890?

Of course not.

Capping things off, Mishra makes what I am starting to call the Argumentum ad Trumpum fallacy. To wit – that anything can be gleaned about society from the bare fact that Trump won.

Is American society descending into chaos and dislocation? Into race hatred and cataclysm? I mean, maybe, but how does Trump prove it? But for a few coincidences in one or two states, he lost. I’m not saying he won unfairly – I’m saying that, so to speak, there are (let’s say) 40 in 100 universes where he lost. In those universes, one assumes, the Mishras of the world don’t say “actually, I was wrong about society, and the election of this moderate Democrat proves it.”

His Argumentum ad Brexitum falls similarly discordant on my ears. Brexit barely won, and most of its supporters were older Brits, not young angry radicals. How in the world does Brexit show a world withdrawing into itself? Again, it was tight enough that the outcome could well have been decided by a couple of days of bad weather during the voting period. Without Brexit, does the argument change?

Mishra also puts force this idea that global anomie stems from a sort of halt to the promised progress of humanity that the Enlightenment promulgated. Is this true? Not really. It may well be true for the Western middle class (writ large) who’ve generally suffered due to globalization? But, worldwide, the average worker is better off than ever. Poverty and hunger are falling. Snapchat has nifty Internet-glasses. Where is the purported halt to progress?

In short, I wanted to see some stronger stats (or maybe some stats at all). Nothing major. Just, maybe a rule that every time you say ressentiment or amour propre in reference to the feelings of an entire people, you oughta make a nice graph or something.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. If you want a window into what people who read The New Yorker while nodding their heads knowingly are thinking about the present moment, this is a very pretty way to get it.

Age of Anger (Mishra)

The Complete Maus

Dammit, this book is perfection. I hope I write something this good someday.

It’s the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, and his experiences during the Holocaust. The story is framed by an equally compelling collection of interactions between Spiegelman and his father as the former collects these stories in order to create the comic book. This book is rightfully considered a classic, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Time to do a Spiegelman dive.

The Complete Maus (Spiegelman)

The Patriarch

A solid and in-depth biography of Joseph P Kennedy, patriarch of the famed Kennedy political family. It’s an interesting angle on an interesting person, and it provides a lot of understanding of the Kennedy brothers, while also dispelling some persistent myths about Joseph P. Highly recommended if you’re curious about him or about his family.

The Patriarch (Nasaw)

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Okay, so confession time – I have a soft soft SOFT spot for lost world adventure stories. I’m not sure I’m an objective judge of quality here because of this, but MAN did I enjoy this book. It’s the story of an author who helps find a lost city in Honduras. Amazingly, this was done in 2015, thanks to LIDAR technology able to locate human-made structures in deep jungle. Of course, no modern jungle adventure can match the danger and intrigue of the old 19th century tales, but this is about as good as it gets in modern times.

The Lost City of the Monkey God (Preston)

March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

What a delightful history of the Nazi relation (and Hitler’s relation in particular) to drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The author makes a compelling that the role of these drugs (which were used en masse during the Battle of France) has been underestimated. Similarly, the fact that Hitler had a personal physician who prescribed him all manner of drugs, up to and including speedballs, may have also been overlooked as an explanation of erratic behavior.

It’s a book full of stories I hadn’t heard elsewhere, and the perspective of history as viewed through pharmacology was new to me.

Blitzed (Ohler)

The Way of Strangers

Wood does an excellent job of trying to make you understand how people in the Islamic State think. A lot of it is personal memoirs and history, but most interesting of all, Wood argues that the West has often misunderstood Islamic State members, by either claiming that they’re purely the product of our own influence, or that they are not truly a religion, or that the people in charge are mere power seekers. To oversimplify a bit, Wood’s big point is that these people are best understood as religious people with a great deal of conviction, who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, that leads to their awful behavior. Particularly memorable for me was a part where he mentions a conservative American scholar who believes we fail to understand ISIS because most of us in the secular West no longer understand the basic ideological framework that would lead someone to endure war and privation for religious beliefs.

The Way of Strangers (Wood)

Computing: A Concise History

This book is basically what the title claims. I was actually hoping for something a bit more technical, but this book really is concise and focused mostly on basic historical facts. If you don’t know anything about the history of computing, this is a great place to start. If you already know the basic deal, I’d skip it.

Computing: A Concise History (Ceruzzi)

The Adventure of English

A great little book describing the history of English. Its only flaw (which I hesitate to call a flaw because the author is quite aware of it) is that in the book’s exuberance for the specialness of English, it can get quite a bit too teleological. Just about any claim in English’s favor could be easily explained as survivor bias.

Still, it’s a fun romp through the history of the English language, and worth a read.

The Adventure of English (Bragg)

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital

This is a well-researched history of New York’s Bellevue hospital. The author cleverly uses what is ostensibly a sort of biography of Bellevue to explore the history of medicine since the 18th century, and to explore the relation between hospitals, the government, and the public in the United States. It’s fascinating stuff.

Bellevue (Oshinsky)