I read this in one sitting. Rather, I devoured it. Orwell's writing is that good. This reads part anthropology and part journalism of the best kind. II read this in one sitting. Rather, I devoured it. Orwell's writing is that good. This reads part anthropology and part journalism of the best kind. It is a telling expose into poverty in Paris and London during the Great Depression.
What hit me immediately is that there was such a strong sense of nationalism and superiority among those who were down and out. They were poor, on the edge of death, struggling to find food, and yet they clung to these meaningless national stereotypes. No matter what, they always found ways to bolster their own nationality and insult others. This surprised me because it seemed like such an intellectual exercise that is unbecoming of impoverished bodies. Stereotypes abound about Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, French, etc. It is difficult to tell that these vagabonds even identify or feel the nationality that they are. They are not what comes to mind when thinking of a certain nationality.
Orwell's description of being poor is hard-hitting and poignant. He conveys the fear of poverty and its travails. He communicates the 18 hours of work a day, the miserable conditions, the impossibility of social mobility. Life is flat, stagnant, and despicable in Paris and London.
I found Paris to be much more of a compelling situation that London, but that might have been because Orwell had to write about finding jobs, retaining them, working with new cheap businesses, and roaming about with Boris. Nobody in London quite matches Boris, though Paddy comes close.
In a day of shortened attention spans and infinite distractions, I think it is significant that I read this one sitting. It is a testament to Orwell's power and cutting perspicacity as a writer. ...more
This was immensely enjoyable to read. Despite my litany of misgivings about the book, its content, its shoddy reasoning style and leaping conclusions,This was immensely enjoyable to read. Despite my litany of misgivings about the book, its content, its shoddy reasoning style and leaping conclusions, it definitely was fun and enjoyable. The writing is flawless, and it flows mellifluously. Gladwell's strength, no doubt, is his writing. Others might say his research (always interesting); others might point to his stories. The writing made this book and I devoured it in less than a day because of it. I will gladly read Gladwell books for their style and to learn how to write, but I will not read a Gladwell book thinking that I have learned how to reason, argue, or conclude. Those would be fallacies he might be expected to make. My only gripe about his writing is that he did not teach me one word. At least impart some vocabulary, perhaps some jargon, at least a cool word.
Gladwell falls flat with statistical reasoning. The absence of it is appalling. He makes various comparisons and generalizations without backing them with the literacy of statistics. He cannot forcefully or marginally make the arguments and points that he makes without buttressing them with an array of statistics. I would love to see some t-tests and f-tests in here. Gladwell is playing pseudo-social scientist until he does. I know he does not purport to be a scientist, but the claims that he makes claim scientific certainty in a way. He is a wonderful essayist, writer, and journalist. He is not an expert in sciences nor social sciences. He needs to supplement his conclusions and arguments with more scientific data and statistics. Far too often, he relies on apocryphal stories and anecdotes. Anecdotes are interesting and an exciting way to begin a chapter. They are not a substitution for data. It is like the tobacco executive who invokes his uncle - a lifelong smoker who died at age 95 - as evidence that smoking does not kill. The culture of honor that pervades the South of the United States is one of the most important social phenomena and it has received the corresponding academic study under Cohen and Nisbett. Gladwell shortchanges the entire chapter, detailing maybe half of one study. There are at least five excellent studies that detail the phenomenon in various mutations. He hardly discusses implications, as well.
I am, of course, being far too harsh on Gladwell. However, if Gladwell is to occupy the high niche that he does in our writing and intellectual culture, he should be accountable to higher standards. The book feels like it is written for occasional readers who could not care less about the arguments and just want a nice story. Gladwell is far too talented and important to be degrading himself to that level of writing. His New Yorker essays are brilliant. His debates are persuasive and intelligent. His public appearances on Colbert and Fareed Zakaria show that he is one of the more intelligent commentators on the scene (he was one of the few to fight back against this idiotic notion that social media caused the Arab revolts). We know Gladwell is intelligent, he persuades us to think differently, and that he is one of the best writers we have. Now we need him to write better books.
All of this being said, I am about to start another Gladwell book and look forward to it. ...more
History writing is overall very good. It has to be by nature. History, after all, is storytelling. McCullough is the best there is, vividly weaving vaHistory writing is overall very good. It has to be by nature. History, after all, is storytelling. McCullough is the best there is, vividly weaving various histories into one thematic arch, in this case, Americans in Paris. It is such a brilliant idea, almost like a reverse De Toqueville, except with groups of Americans throughout decades. McCullough's writing is top notch and nobody beats his storytelling. It also helps that he is an antiquated man of classic times, so to speak. He identifies with his characters more than modern day figures, but that is sheer speculation on my part.
The main purpose of this book to understand is that the United States' founding depended heavily on France. This is not to downplay their help at the end of the Revolutionary War, but it is to showcase just how culturally important French people and French ideas were to America's founding. LeFayette is shown to be an almost American icon. He was thought of was France's George Washington. There was the hope that the French Revolution would succeed in the late 18th century and that France and the USA would be sister countries. McCullough does not spend too much time on the early formation of the country because this history is more known, but it is a reminder of just how important France has been as an ally and cultural friend from the beginning. It is too bad that we use France as a punchline in jokes today.
The men of the 1830s who went to Paris are shown to be the most interesting. This is probably because they had no choice but to go to Paris to further their various crafts, especially the medical students. Medical schools were sparse and bare in America, so they had to attend Parisian schools and the Americans were in love. Charles Sumner stands out as the heroic character of this cohort for the work he did with abolitionism in the Senate and the blows he took to defend it. The genesis of his beliefs that slavery was a moral evil that had to be eradicated was traced to France. Blacks do not feature prominently, but some blacks achieved success in Paris and that influenced Americans. The common motif of all the Americans in Paris is that they were smitten by Paris. This holds true for Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century to the painters and sculptors of the late 19th century. The affinity between France and the United States is shown best through the artistic exchange. American artists - sculptors, painters, etc - worked in Paris but gained fame as Americans. Statues were exchanged, like the Statue of Liberty. Americans were adored in Paris and in their home country.
The political atmosphere of France contrasts very much with the situation in the United States and that is noted by the Americans. Whereas the United States has been a paradigm of stability since the overthrow of the Articles of Confederation, France has had empires, republics, kings, and presidents. The Americans of the 1870s had to withstand a Prussian siege. They had to serve Emperor Napoleon III. The work ambassadors and diplomats had to do in tumultuous situations to save the relationship between France and the US cannot be overstated.
The characters are wholly intriguing and the events that occur in Paris are astounding. Large fairs and world festivals were conducted to showcase France's greatness as an empire, hence the Eiffel Tower, which interestingly enough, Parisians hated. They thought it was unrefined in taste and too American. Of course, they had a change of heart.
Back to the point of Americans going to Paris to perfect their trade, the same seems to hold true today. Americans in various careers (it seems salient in food services) go abroad to train and specialize. It is a badge and mark of credibility that an American has been trained in Europe and has brought that expertise back to the country. The progenitors of that were the Americans of the 1830s. The same beliefs about Paris hold true today. It is probably one of the most adored places by Americans today, even if France is the butt of many unnecessary jokes.
I am impressed with McCullough's characters, storytelling, writing, and communication of themes. Reading McCullough is a treat. Overall, an enjoyable, informative, and important read in understanding American cultural history. ...more
Sir Michael is one of the best historians of the 20th century, especially when it comes to war and British history. It must have been epic to watch thSir Michael is one of the best historians of the 20th century, especially when it comes to war and British history. It must have been epic to watch these lectures in person.
It is impressive that he fit 500 years of the history of war and war philosophy in such a short book. The 1500-1792 material did not interest me too much. That probably has to do with personal preference, but that chapter is necessary in laying the groundwork for what a 'liberal' is, as defined by belief in human agency, democracy, international cooperation, international relations, etc. When he gets to the French Revolution and Napoleon, the book takes on an entirely new complexion.
The chapters on World War I and World II are enthralling and particularly incisive. WWI and WWII occupy special places in our collective memories, not only because we won both wars, but because they were instrumental in shaping the current world order. As such, the importance of liberalism is shaped through these wars and through their aftermaths. There are the international institutions and cooperation, but Sir Michael tackles an important problem: democracies do not go to war with each other, but they still demonstrate an amazing amount of bellicosity. It was theorized that democracy was the essence for peace. Fascism by definition is war. Democracy, as defined in opposition to Fascism, is peace. However, it has not turned out that way.
The chapters on WWI and WWII are excellent because they explain the psyche of the British public. Obviously, Britain was involved in arms races with Germany and other European nations at the time. That manifested in colonialism in Africa, navy buildups, the militarization of society, and so on. Prussian militarism, however, was not just a focus of the British. Russia's history has been concerned with the same phenomenon. Prussian militarism split the British public in the 1930s with the rise of Chancellor Hitler and Nazism. Some prominent figures in the British government - Labour and Liberal Democrats mostly - seemed to be more okay not just with appeasement but in Germany's right to annex land. The apparition of Versailles animated their beliefs. The insights on the British public and WWI are fascinating, as well, but I knew most of that already. The enthusiasm for that war was so popular that socialist organizations and pacifist groups had to agree to pursue war just to retain support. I believe Italy is the only country in which socialist parties did not support war.
The insights from pursuing an international peace are cursorily mentioned in relation to Korea and Vietnam, as well as American foreign policy. Howard points to Kissinger as reversing traditional liberal foreign policy by playing the power game. The recent material is speculative in a way, but it does show that the liberal idea of peace has probably come to a close (Howard writes after Vietnam). ...more
Provocative is a soft word to describe the content and ideas in this book. For me, it was even radical, though I am not sure others would label it thaProvocative is a soft word to describe the content and ideas in this book. For me, it was even radical, though I am not sure others would label it that. The proposals laid out are simple in theory, but their practicality and possibility of implementation are so implausible that it seems almost silly to think about. Abolishing birthright citizenship is nothing new; scores of citizenship scholars presently advocate for this view. Stevens just goes further than all of them by arguing for the end of the nation-state. She errs frequently when she discusses abolishing the nation-state. Her evidence rests on war and other supposedly evil things the nation-state perpetrates, but she misattributes those phenomena to the nation-state. She also discounts democratic peace and misreads evolutionary biology. The debate on birthright citizenship is important and while radical, definitely necessary to consider. ...more