For most of the book, I wanted to crawl between the pages and live there. It is delightfully funny and incredibly apt. Having learned or learned of En...moreFor most of the book, I wanted to crawl between the pages and live there. It is delightfully funny and incredibly apt. Having learned or learned of English cultural traditions, idioms, foibles, etc., as an outsider myself over my years of living there, I found Fox's approach of "discovering" them to be like a witty echo of my own observational experience (with none of the fear, painful experimentation and rejection that can come with actual expatriate living). Wonderfully enjoyable.
Then, around the chapter on modes of dress, she started to sound a bit like an irrelevant, smug newspaper columnist writing about what the silly youth are up to these days (with no attempt to distinguish this from what the silly youth are up to in other cultures, which would have excused her), and she lost me. The rest felt a bit tired, like the parts of a term paper that are written the night before deadline.
Still, that occurred late enough in the book that it shouldn't put anyone off.(less)
Pretty useless. About ten pages for the entire Bay of Kotor region (including three on its history), and literally one paragraph on the Tara River Can...morePretty useless. About ten pages for the entire Bay of Kotor region (including three on its history), and literally one paragraph on the Tara River Canyon. It includes a section on Dubrovnik, knowing that lots of travelers will use that city as a gateway to Montenegro, and then neglects to provide virtually any information on the best ways to get from one to the other (or to get from anywhere to anywhere else, come to think of it).(less)
I work for a Wall Street firm - though about as far out in the orbit as one can be while still technically employed - and while I liked this book, I'm...moreI work for a Wall Street firm - though about as far out in the orbit as one can be while still technically employed - and while I liked this book, I'm not sure I would have found it quite so engaging if I didn't recall so vividly the weeks at the center of the narrative, the anxiety that our firm might fail and we might all be jobless, the emails to staff that are quoted by the author (and come off, to me anyway, strangely more sincerely than they did at the time).
Having said that, the level of detail, the feeling of in-the-room-ness, is an extraordinary feat in itself, and Sorkin does a good job (as far as we know, anyway) bringing together the hundreds of interlocking narratives. He makes the decision to give each character the benefit of the doubt as to his motives, never questioning (until the epilogue) their decisions or reasoning. This aspirational approach, applied as it was to a group of people rarely treated in the public imagination as anything other than villains jumping gleefully into grottoes of taxpayer-funded gold coins, felt a bit funny to me for awhile, but began to make sense as Sorkin brought in multiple accounts of the same events and I realized that the characters were happily damning themselves or each other with their own words, and didn't need the author to do it. Sorkin didn't need to call Dick Fuld any names - Fuld's own recollections lay bare enough his strange behavior and catastrophic decisions.
The book's brief is to recall in painstaking detail the events of (primarily) September and October 2008, so there's very little in here about the underlying causes of the financial (let alone economic) crisis; for those issues readers should look elsewhere.(less)
In my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - seculari...moreIn my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - secularism, if you like), and attack on theism (and religion). I expected the latter, and found it in spades, but was surprised that there wasn't much of the former, which was a shame, because I think that added dimension would have given Hitchens's argument a bit more of an open-door feel (something many believers appreciate about religion, incidentally).
I can't blame Hitchens for that, though; he set out to make the case against religion, not to write Secularism for Dummies, and this should have been clear from the subtitle: the book is about all the ways in which religion is bad. Having defined his scope thus, he launches from the opening into a catalog of atrocities, large and small, that can be laid at the feet of religion: holy wars and religious killings; dietary restrictions; interference in sexual conduct and sexual health; the holding hostage of reason by faith; the spread of false information about our origins and the attendant obstruction of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With this as context, he then presents brief, damning biographies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, before moving on to argue religion's systemically poisonous nature, on a number of fronts.
In a delightfully catty dispute over the nature of evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, "If we define poetic justice as defeat by one's own favored devices - Robespierre before the guillotine or Midas in golden starvation - then we might be intrigued to find Steven Pinker, a linguist by training, upended by his own use of words." One could make a similar case against Hitchens (although I don't think he is upended completely, just limited): a disciple or even evangelist of reason, he set for himself a task that reason could not achieve - to show that religion poisons everything. (This claim isn't limited to the book's subtitle; it is repeated as a refrain throughout.) This is plainly impossible (not least because one can't make a list of everything), and so the endless cataloging of evil and hypocrisy comes off as grasping, instead of what it should rightly be, horrifying.
At times, Hitchens's impulse to condemn faith and the faithful gets in the way of a perfectly obvious point of reason. In the chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?", he describes a debate in which an atheist says to a bishop that he sees no evidence for the existence of a god, to which the bishop replies, "Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality." Surely the best response to this is simply, "And yet I do not, so evidently belief is not necessary for morality." But Hitchens leaps over this (I think obvious) point to call out the bishop's statement as an insult and then to suggest that this means the bishop himself would lead an immoral life if he were "freed from the restraints of doctrine." This is a clever turn of logic, but not thoroughly convincing on the question of whether belief necessarily engenders morality, or whether morality exists in the absence of belief, both of which are worth addressing in earnest. The truth is that in some cases, people do extraordinarily good things not only in spite of but because of their belief in a higher being, and Hitchens isn't able to square this with the unsavory human tendencies that religion often exploits, so he simply skips over it. "The first thing to be said," he states, "is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of - indeed is not even an argument for - the truth of his belief." No indeed, but his thesis isn't that religion is untrue, it's that religion poisons everything (italics his). The point of all this being that Hitchens makes a very good case, but ultimately not the case he promised he would make.
The concluding chapters are titled "A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational" and "The Need for a New Enlightenment," and it is here that I would have hoped for a celebration of reason, inquiry, irreligious morality and of course secularism. And I guess that's what he was going for, too, but unfortunately for the reader, he must have felt like the inventory of religious iniquity hadn't been satisfactorily completed in the preceding chapters, because it bleeds into these sections as well. At the end of which, one has the impression that these noble, non-faith-based pursuits are more about the fight against belief than anything else, which is a discredit to them.
However! It was easier to put my objections into words than my praises, and I do think this book deserves its four (well, three and a half, if I could) stars. Hitchens is an incredibly good writer, who makes the turn of phrase an art and is as clever with words as powerful. And imperfect though the book may be, it's pleasing to read something (even a polemic) that is so literate, that so clearly appreciates the genius of past writers, philosophers and scientists, and that so strongly rises to the debate (even if, as I believe, it overreaches to its own detriment). As I was reading this, it struck me that there are not a lot of interesting, highly literate public intellectuals left in America. Incendiary though it may be, Christopher Hitchens's voice is a challenging and enjoyable one.(less)