Stellar overview of American politics & society in the first 40 years of the USA. If you've read Wood's 'Radicalism of the American Revolution' yoStellar overview of American politics & society in the first 40 years of the USA. If you've read Wood's 'Radicalism of the American Revolution' you know he marries a masterful grasp of the early Republic with a fluid and entertaining style. This (much bigger) book takes up similar themes, with chapters on science, religion, commerce, etc.
I picked this up to help me understand something that's never been especially clear to me - how the US had become "democratic" not more than 50 years after a republican revolution in a society that still used "democrat" as an epithet. Wood shows how the relentless leveling of a dynamic frontier capitalist society steadily eroded the kinds of durable class distinctions that made democracy a dirty word in the 18th century.
Also especially interesting to me: his explanation of how some elites came to see the Articles of Confederation as hopelessly unworkable, and the chapter on religion, which links the lack of an established denomination and competitive democratic (& capitalist) culture with the distinctive enthusiasm Americans show for religion.
One of the best and most difficult tricks a historian can pull off is to open up the distant past and show you how things could have been very, very different. We take it for granted the rebels in '76 prevail, that the 13 colonies coalesce as one functioning nation-state, and that the new country would successfully defend its interests against robust competition from England, France and Spain. Wood over and over again allows one to see how precarious all these triumphs were, while setting the stage for the 50s and 60s when basic tensions unravel the country....more
This should have been a fascinating book, but I found reading it to be more of a slog than the topic deserves.
Ellington built a truly peerless careerThis should have been a fascinating book, but I found reading it to be more of a slog than the topic deserves.
Ellington built a truly peerless career spanning fifty years, self-consciously establishing himself as not just a great jazz composer or African-American musician, but as a giant of American arts. He not only sustained a successful career for all those years, but managed to support a stellar orchestra long after the swing era gave way to smaller combos, and (partly because of that stellar orchestra), he continued to innovate and extend his repertoire, refusing to coast on his massively popular hits from the '40s.
Cohen's book gives a pretty good overview of the arc of this career, with a focus on Ellington's navigation of the tricky currents of art, racism, technology and the music business in America.
What the 600-page doorstop doesn't do much with is Ellington's actual music, broader currents in jazz, or his brilliant bandmates. You will get some good pointers on, say, which of Ellington's work from the 60s that you really need to hear, but there's very little analysis of what makes the music tick. If you were hoping to learn more about Bubber Miley or Jimmy Blanton, you will definitely come away disappointed.
Still, there's plenty of interest in what Cohen does cover. It's a shame the appeal of the book is marred by an overly academic writing style (Cohen goes too far out of his way to footnote insights and off-hand remarks), and a baggy, repetitive writing style that hobbles the pace of the book. Despite the topic, I didn't enjoy reading Duke Ellington's America much....more
Very engaging and informative tour of world history focused on the questions of why the West came to dominate the globe (and about the limits of thatVery engaging and informative tour of world history focused on the questions of why the West came to dominate the globe (and about the limits of that domain). Lots of excellent little nuggets of "aha! I'd never thought about that before!" Well worth reading....more
Well-told account of Lyndon Johnson's early years. As moving and fascinating as any novel or play you could imagine - Johnson is truly a ShakespeareanWell-told account of Lyndon Johnson's early years. As moving and fascinating as any novel or play you could imagine - Johnson is truly a Shakespearean character, compelling, affecting and deeply flawed. We owe Caro a great deal to put so much of his life energy into telling this story before the details slip over the historical horizon....more
Nothing mysterious here: straight-up car porn for your coffee table, including terrific large-format photos of some of the most beautiful machinery evNothing mysterious here: straight-up car porn for your coffee table, including terrific large-format photos of some of the most beautiful machinery ever wrought. There is text, and it is perfectly adequate, but this is really all about the photography....more
If you are a racing fan, you love the movie Le Mans. If you love Le Mans (or McQueen), you'll love this book. And it (obviously) has just about the coIf you are a racing fan, you love the movie Le Mans. If you love Le Mans (or McQueen), you'll love this book. And it (obviously) has just about the coolest title ever.
Keyser opens with a nicely done history of the race and the course, and steps through an interesting short biography of McQueen, and the actor's increasing obsession with racing and remarkable accomplishments leading up to filming Le Mans. The bulk of the book describes the technical, personal and business challenges of turning McQueen's crazy notion (let's film a movie during the actual running of Le Mans!) into a proper movie with a beginning, middle and end.
Many excellent pictures too. A must-have for race fans....more
Wonderful coffee table book on the history of Ferrari, covering both road and racing side of Maranello's brilliant exploits. Includes reminiscences frWonderful coffee table book on the history of Ferrari, covering both road and racing side of Maranello's brilliant exploits. Includes reminiscences from key partners and drivers like Hill, Chinetti, Scaglietti, et al....more
Series of short essays - some really fascinating - from Paul Graham, who continues to post things well worth reading on his blog. Especially good on wSeries of short essays - some really fascinating - from Paul Graham, who continues to post things well worth reading on his blog. Especially good on what makes startups work (or not) and the mentality behind successfully turning an idea into an actual business....more
I approached this book hoping to learn more about 20th century music from an admirably fluid and entertaiA stellar tour of 20th century serious music.
I approached this book hoping to learn more about 20th century music from an admirably fluid and entertaining writer. Ross' book exceeded my expectations, opening up whole universes of music I might never have encountered otherwise.
Writing about musical innovation and invention in a way that comes across meaningfully to readers is a massive challenge, particularly if they (like me) only know just a bit about the craft of music. Spotify was an absolutely essential companion: their catalog is impressively thorough, and it was a revelation to be able to pull up and listen to, say, something by Ruth Crawford Seeger while reading about her work. Ross also set up a website therestisnoise.com (still live) as a worthy companion to the book, which lets him share selections illustrating his narrative.
Ross does a largely impressive job connecting trends in music to twentieth century history (the middle third of the book is mostly concerned with how composers became entangled with or entangled themselves with the nasty politics of totalitarian regimes, and then Cold War orthodoxies).
For a 600 page book trying to contain a global century, Ross' work covers a lot of ground. However, composers outside the European-American orbit do seem to get short shrift, and if you want to learn about music from the last 30 years of the twentieth century, this is not the place to start. Unlike the masterful opening chapters, the last fifty pages seem like a rushed encyclopedic attempt to name-check composers around the globe, but one doesn't learn much about the work of these exotic non-western, sometimes even female specimens. In retrospect, Ross might have been better served to end this book in the 60s, and leave more recent work for another time. The most interesting development of that last section - the erosion of the high barrier between serious and "pop" music - deserved much more elaboration and exploration.
All that said, I loved reading this. I was surprised by how much modern music I was already at least a little familiar with. I never really realized that Bartok, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, and Prokofiev all belonged to the most recent century. I also went into the book thinking of 20th century music as mostly forbidding, dissonant "difficult" stuff.
There is plenty of that, no doubt. A sidenote: it's interesting to ponder how acclimated we have become to dissonance and atonality from movie scores; there isn't much in Schoenberg that will really startle somebody who grew up in the 70s watching movies.
I had also forgotten until Ross reminded me that there's a long list of 20th century music - not all "difficult" - I already loved: Debussy, Ravel, Copeland, Satie, and Stravinsky for starters (but also Eno, Gershwin, Ellington and Monk). And he turned me on to sublimely lovely music by people I'd never heard of before.
I look forward to many hours exploring the neglected corners of modern music Ross introduced me to, folks we are really unlikely (for no good reason) to hear on the radio like Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis and Lou Harrison, not to mention folks you've heard of but may not have heard like Cage, Stockhausen and Riley.
Fascinating, appalling, and all too relevant. Karnow begins with the earliest colonial era in Indochina, and takes you all the way up to the last heliFascinating, appalling, and all too relevant. Karnow begins with the earliest colonial era in Indochina, and takes you all the way up to the last helicopter leaving Saigon. Written in an engaging, polished prose that nonetheless lets some passion through as Americans again and again can't let go of illusions and walk away from a bad situation of their own making.
I learned many things I hadn't understood at all before - how deep French cultural roots ran in Viet Nam, role of Catholics, Buddhists et al, the "loss" of China as precedent, and the extreme feebleness of the various governments in the South. And most importantly how early US planners understood the war was hopeless and how difficult it was to reverse years of foreign policy posturing under the white-hot glare of domestic politics in the Cold War era....more
Another gripping book by Michael Lewis. Lewis is one of a handful of people of whom I'll eagerly read anything they choose to write about. He has a waAnother gripping book by Michael Lewis. Lewis is one of a handful of people of whom I'll eagerly read anything they choose to write about. He has a way of getting across a story in an inimitibly clear and engaging way. This book takes a fairly complicated story full of fascinating characters and lays it out as lucidly as one could imagine. Whodathunk you could wish a book about the mysteries of credit default swaps was twice as long?...more
Inspiring, thought-provoking account of the Harlem Children's Zone, an attempt to forge a comprehensive "wrap-around" approach to poverty, literally fInspiring, thought-provoking account of the Harlem Children's Zone, an attempt to forge a comprehensive "wrap-around" approach to poverty, literally from the womb to college-age.
Tough doesn't sugar-coat the ups-and-downs of Canada's group, but I'd love to see more people read this and really engage with the challenge of helping people out of poverty. A focused, cohort-based (and place-based!) approach like this seems far more promising than the disjointed collection of programs that's grown up over time. ...more
In this extraordinarily ambitious book, Dworkin attempts nothing less than a thorough re-grounding of political philosophy, ethics and epistemology. IIn this extraordinarily ambitious book, Dworkin attempts nothing less than a thorough re-grounding of political philosophy, ethics and epistemology. I'm impressed. While I really haven't had a chance to digest his arguments, I think his book stands with some of the monuments of contemporary political theory like Rawls and Habermas (who till roughly the same field).
The title is a riff on the saying (made famous by Isaiah Berlin) that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing":
"Value is one big thing. The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually supporting: what we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually to any argument we find compelling about the rest."
It may not be evident how audacious this claim is, but consider the claims Dworkin unpacks in the course of the book:
that there is such thing as truth per se
that there are objectively valid moral judgements, and that relativism and nihilism are hopelessly incoherent
these moral judgements are necessarily interconnected, and collectively rely and on inform a vision of life well-lived
that there are no ultimate conflicts between values, rightly understood
that there is such thing as a right way to live, and moreover we have a duty to ourselves to seek it
that there is such thing as justice, and that it's connected to ethics and morality in an intelligible way
A key element of Dworkin's thinking here is to re-frame how we understand the process of defining concepts, and draw our attention to what he calls the interpretive nature of the concepts we use. Political and moral concepts are not susceptible to neat and tidy definitions, because they unavoidably bring a web of assumptions, beliefs and values (in other words, other concepts) with them - in the absence of which they are unintelligible. Another way to say this: the right answer is a process. And a contested, provisional, complicated one at that.
Closely linked notions of responsibility and dignity allow Dworkin to spell out a mode of seeking the right answers (or we might better say "the best answers we can articulate right now"), and also to develop notions of liberty, justice and democracy by bringing in a concept of fairness he develops from exploring responsibility and dignity.
One of the most practically gratifying things about this approach is that it clarifies what I often find so frustrating about political conversations with someone whose politics don't much align with mine. A position on abortion, affirmative action, or any other issue can only really be explained or clarified to someone who doesn't share it if you have the time and ability to say more about how you came to that position (and they have the patience to listen). In other words, what are your beliefs about the good life, the nature of liberty, justice, etc. Rarely does one get more than a couple sentences into this before the conversation narrows (right when you need it to open up!).
I'm actually going back and skimming the book after finishing it, which I don't recall doing with any other book. Part of that is due to the structure of Dworkin's argument, which is necessarily iterative, developing its arguments in a helical fashion of circling around to revisit and stitch together its arguments. Part of it is because of my own experience reading the book in short, distracted stints going to and from work on the bus & train, which does not really promote the kind of attention span the book deserves.
Dworkin's writing has always puzzled me a bit. I have read a number of his essays in the NYRB (sometimes even when I'm not in a moving vehicle), and have typically found him a little hard to follow, even though his writing is lucid and coherent enough. You may notice in my reviews I use the word "engaging" a lot, and value that highly in an author. Dworkin, for me, is not especially engaging, and it's hard to articulate why exactly. I find myself re-reading his paragraphs multiple times because my mind has wandered to another topic mid-sentence. A good deal of that has to be my own fault, but not all, I think.
I think Dworkin has a tendency to favor a careful, even legalistic formulations (even if repeated to mildly soporific effect) over short, snappy phrases. Understanding that "dignity" means something like: "[A legitimate government] must respect fully the responsibility and right of each person to decide for himself how to make something valuable of his life" is important, but in many instances I might appreciate just having "dignity" stand in for that articulated and not very sexy sentence, which doesn't after all exhaust the concept of dignity.
But I am loathe to deter you from reading what is a very fine book, especially given my distracted state reading it. It deserves what my younger self would have been happy to give it: serious study.
And the man can write a snappy sentence, even if he does so sparingly. The Epilogue has real grace and bite, and if you'll indulge me, I'll close with a bit I quite liked:
"No respectable or even intelligible theory of value supposes that making and spending money has any value or importance in itself.... The ridiculous dream of a princely life is kept alive by ethical sleepwalkers. And they in turn keep injustice alive because their self-contempt breeds a politics of contempt for others. Dignity is indivisible."