Bari Weiss’s recommended reading—and ours

March 20, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I guess today is Substack Day. I was going to write about John McWhorter’s latest post, dealing with the ludicrousness of canceling Amanda Gorman’s translators because they don’t match her ethnicity (see my posts here and here), but that’s too much about race in one day.

Instead, Bari Weiss has posted some takes on recent books she’s read, as well as confessing her pleasures (taking baths, reading) and skills (making pasta and Negronis). Re the reading, she gives a list of the books she’s liked a lot, and I’ll list those and perhaps give a few of her quotes. Click on the screenshot; access is free, but you should subscribe if you read regularly:

Her favorite recent reads. First, the two biggies:

THE REVOLT OF THE PUBLIC by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri is the book I have recommended more than any other this past year. He owes me a cut, as I told him in a recent interview, which I’m going to write up for a future column.

Anyone that thinks the primary conflict in America is between Republicans and Democrats is out to lunch. The real conflict — not just in this country but in the 21st century — is the one between what Gurri variously calls the center and the border, the hierarchy and the network, or the elites in their ivory towers and the public in their chaotic squares. That conflict has been created by the digital revolution. If you dream of things calming down or going back to normal anytime soon, bad news: we are only at the very beginning.

The tool of the revolution is information. The authority of 20th century institutions like Harvard or The New York Times depended on scarcity; they genuinely had access to exclusive information and secret knowledge. That authority has utterly collapsed under the force of the never-ending tsunami of information available to any fool with Google.

If you want to understand how seemingly discreet phenomenon like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the GameStop short squeeze are actually all part of one story, Gurri, who published this book in 2014, will show you.

Most important, he will convince you, once and for all, that the old hierarchies are dead and no amount of nostalgia can revive them. The real question is what comes next.

and

Christopher Lasch’s book THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES — the books are best experienced as a double feature — makes the compelling case that our elite class has abandoned its sense of duty and noblesse oblige. That unmooring from community, from commitment, and from a common culture has unraveled our democracy. It is them and not the deplorables, he argues, who pose the real threat.

Lasch’s book was published in 1996, but you will not believe how prescient it is. It should be required reading — his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” is next on my last — but in every indie bookstore I enter the clerk draws a blank when I ask for either title.

For some reason, neither of these suggestions floats my boat.  Here is a list of her other recent recommendations with Amazon links:

Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher

Alexandria, a novel by Paul Kingsnorth

Billion Dollar Loser, by Reeves Wiedeman

Big Time, by Jen Spyra.

I haven’t read any of these, but I did read one she mentions in passing: Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, an account of Elizabeth Holmes and the fall of her blood-testing company Theranos. That was a page turner, and I recommend it highly. Holmes and her partner and ex-squeeze Sunny Balwani are still waiting trial on a number of charges, and it’s been a long time.

As for my own reading, I finished Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, which most of us will find Manichean and irritating, but it does make some good points, including emphasizing that members of all races can be racist (well, we knew that, but it’s interesting to see Kendi admit it). But the interweaving of his life story with his principles does not make for a smooth read, and his insistence that structural racism is so prevalent that any lack of equity (absolutely proportional representation) must be attribute to racism is debatable. Still, all of us should read this book if we’re to be conversant with Critical Theory. I hear that his Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racism in America that won a National Book Award, is better.

Much of my time over the past few weeks has been involved in reading things that Adam Gopnik cites (his own articles and books) in our discussion about “ways of knowing”.  That involved several long articles on Trollope and DIckens, other analysis of these authors, some of the authors themselves, and, finally, Adam’s series of CBC Massey lectures on literature, Winter: Five Windows on the Season. Each 1200-1300 word letter I write in this exchange takes many hours of preparation. I get a break now while he prepares his response, and I hope he doesn’t cite a lot more articles!

In the meantime, I polished off a novel that James Wood, the New Yorker book critic, recommended to me. I asked him if I should read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 (I found it in a free book box), but he told me to read another novel instead: All for Nothing by Walter Kepowski, written in 2006 and translated into English in 2015. Wood also told me not to read his New Yorker review of the book beforehand, as it contained spoilers. I read the review only after I finished, and see why Wood recommended it: he absolutely loved it. And so did I. It starts off a bit slowly, but is still absolutely absorbing, and then things begin to happen exponentially as the book comes to an end. (It’s about the end of the Third Reich viewed from a group of villagers, rich and poor, in eastern Germany who know that the Russians are coming.) This one I recommend highly. Wood calls it a “masterpiece.”

Next in line for me is the book below, in which Dan Dennett (a compatibilist) and Gregg Caruso (a hard determinist) debate free will. I’ll crack it this weekend, though I suspect I’ll come down on Caruso’s side.

Please put in the comments any books you’ve read recently and what you thought of them.

34 thoughts on “Bari Weiss’s recommended reading—and ours

  1. I’d like to recommend David Goodhart’s “The Road To Somewhere”, which contains astute insights into the cultural divide which led to Brexit and which the progressive left continues to misunderstand. It’s UK-focussed but contains principles that, to my mind, also help to explain Trump’s success. It made me re-examine my own views and, I’d like to think, made me more able to understand views I don’t share. Perfect for anyone who thinks “they’re all bigots” is a seriously flawed analysis of any political movement. (Not ideal for anyone who actually does think half the population are bigots.)

  2. I heartily recommend Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism.” In the same vein, no less heartily also recommend Lewis Lapham’s “Money and Class in America.”

    1. I am reading that too at the moment.

      Gregg describes himself as a hard incompatibilist in the book.
      Dennett makes some kind of sense.

  3. The only two of the 60-ish books I read in the last year or so that I rated five-star:

    Zimmer’s _She Has Her Mother’s Laugh_
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36391536
    Thoroughly wide-ranging and yet surprisingly in-depth; even the science-savvy are likely to learn something about genetics.

    _Stand Out of Our Light_ by James Williams; a brilliant discussion of the attention economy and its ill effects.
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38364667
    I would recommend this book to anyone, but I particularly hope that my fellow software development professionals will read it.

        1. I’m looking forward to it. I’m partway through Obama’s latest and also trying to finish Sapolsky’s Behave. (We won’t mention the piling up of New Yorkers, Atlantics, and Harper’s – never know how to pluralize that),

  4. Lasch “… makes the compelling case that our elite class has abandoned its sense of duty and noblesse oblige. That unmooring from community, from commitment, and from a common culture has unraveled our democracy. It is them and not the deplorables, he argues, who pose the real threat.”

    Not having read Lasch’s book, I’m curious: I am a member of the “elite.” My husband and I are in the top 10% of American households, income-wise, and both my husband and I have graduate degrees and work in an occupation considered prestigious. Also, white privilege for the win!

    My question to anyone who has read Lasch’s book: are my husband and I part of the problem? A bit of background:
    “unmooring from community:” Yes, I admit we are fairly unmoored. As an example, we have lived in the same big blue city for 12 years, but now we’re going to move across the U.S. to where our new jobs are. We are loyal to our chosen profession rather than a geographic location.
    “from commitment:” Commitment to whom and what? We are committed to each other, to our five-year-old son, to our jobs, to our extended family, and to liberal democracy. I wrote a giant stack of “please vote for Biden/the Democrats” postcards and letters in 2020, which was also the year I proudly cast my vote for Biden & Harris (the first time I was eligible to vote in a U.S presidential election).
    “from a common culture:” Again, common to what? We certainly have nothing to do with either Trumpist or Woke wingnuttery. We believe in liberal values: free speech, rule of law, equal opportunity for everyone (including a strong social safety net), judging people as individuals and not members of a group, etc.

    Also, I never liked the term “noblesse oblige.” To me it conveys a sense of: “I am superior to you by virtue of my noble birth, you poor plebe, so I ought to feel morally obligated to toss you a few crumbs.”

    Am I what is wrong with America? (I am asking this question sincerely, not rhetorically or sarcastically.)

    1. I think you need to be at least in the top 1%, or the top .1% to be in the cohort the author is referencing. These are the mega-millionaires and billionaires.

  5. I’ll throw in a recommendation for In the Memory of the Forest by Charles Powers, which I’ve almost finished re-reading. I first read this after it came out in paperback in 1998 (and Amazon still remembers when I “last purchased this item”). I was reminded of it when you recently wrote about some prosecutions in Poland, using a new law which makes it a crime to “unjustly and incorrectly blame Poles for crimes committed by the Germans” around WWII, as well as your new recommendation for All for Nothing. That I remembered the book favorably after so many years made me seek it out again.
    Although it takes place in a small Polish village soon after the fall of Communism, with much of the plot(s) relevant to those events, the heart of it harkens back to what went on there during WWII, including the fate of the Jews, and how the Poles related to them and their memories, extending into the present. It could have done with a bit less (or fewer) plot(s), but it succeeds in creating a mood of the (then) present, and what happened a generation beforehand.
    From what I’ve read, Powers was a longtime foreign reporter who retired to write this first book, but died shortly before it was published, adding to the haunting aspect of it, at least for me.

    I’m also reading The Genome Odyssey by Euan Angus Ashley, just published, which so far is quite good. (I’m favorably inclined toward this author, as one of his special clinical interests is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, with which I’ve been recently diagnosed, after almost 7 decades of an active life!, and despite no known family history of HCM, even as it’s presumed to be an autosomal dominant disorder??…WTF).

  6. … as well as confessing her [Weiss’s] …skills (making pasta and Negronis) …

    Any gal drinks gin, not to mention makes maccheroni (as Carmela Soprano used to call it), can’t be all bad in my book.

  7. The Bad Blood one looks good. I’ve heard a movie is being made about it. The two of them are clearly narcissistic sociopaths and you know how we do love to read about them.

    I’m still reading my sci-fi series because of my oi polloi nature; I’m on Book 5 of The Expanse Series.

    1. Hi Diana:

      “The Expanse” just keeps getting better! I’m waiting for the last book, which comes out later this year, in October, I think.

      1. Yeah I’ve enjoyed the series. I will finally be causing up to the Amazon series by the time I get through this one. I hope to have read Book 6 before series 6 most likely to be released December 2021.

  8. I’m reading Revolt of the Public now (on a Kindle) and it is WELL WORTH IT! Highly recommended. Matt Taibbi posted an interview with the author which got me to read it.

  9. I am reading Edwin Fishel’s The Secret War for the Union, which came out in 1998, the year before Fishel died at 84. Apparently, he had spend almost 40 years researching the topic after he found hitherto neglected records at the National Archives. It’s a real sleeper. It reviews the first two years of the war from the perspective of military intelligence, and he shows the critical role it played in the battles in the East. I have read several of the older histories, like Shelby Foote’s, but Fishel’s research casts things in a different light. Well worth the read for anyone interested in the Civil War.

  10. Just finished “DNA” (second edition) by James D. Watson, recommended to me by PCC(E) in the recent “Ask me anything” thread. Hardly necessary to opine that it was full of interesting items, or that I learned a lot.

    I do sort of have a question. Reading anything *about* Watson (reviews on Goodreads; Wikipedia article; other things I’ve heard of in the past), makes it sound like he’s a true creep–racist, misogynist (actually, everything you read about him mentions Rosalind Franklin more that it actually talks about Watson), egomaniacal, ad nauseam. However, this book reads very genially, open, and liberal, with generous helpings of praise toward everyone who’s worked in genetics, from Mendel and Morgan to Franklin and Crick to Francis Collins. There are numerous favorable, reliably liberal comments made on numerous topics, anti-racism, anti-misogyny etc., and more than a little modest self-deprecation, which got me to wondering, what is the reason for the disconnect between what I thought I knew (or at least knew I’d heard), and what I see in the book?

    I can think of (at least) three reasonable explanations: (1) he never really was the nasty person he’s portrayed as, and those portrayals are bandied about by the “all whites are racist, all men are rapists” crowd (this is, of course, what I’d like to believe); (2) he used to be that way, but has either mellowed with age (he was 89 (!) when the second edition was published) or figured he should do some damage control; or (3) his co-authors cleaned up the politics for the book, to make it fit today’s zeitgeist. Does anybody know? Does it even matter? I mean, it’s not like I’m going to stop believing in DNA if it turns out that the personality of the guy who elucidated its structure isn’t exactly what I would have hoped it to be.

    Thanks in advance.

  11. I read Andrew Doyle’s book “Free Speech and Why It Matters,” which came out less than a month ago. He makes some excellent points about why it’s critical to defend unpopular speech even when you loathe the message. The forces that suppress ideas with which many people disagree may eventually come to suppress your ideas.

    I also read Joel Stein’s “In Defense of Elitism.” Very humorous and entertaining. He enjoys poking fun at himself and like-minded individuals. But along the way, Stein shows we all have something to learn from one another.

  12. I’m going to recommend a new book – “Tangled Up in Blue”, by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown. In it, she recounts her experiences as an Auxiliary officer with the metro DC police department, a role in which she underwent complete police training, carried a badge and gun, and did patrol duty in some of the roughest parts of Washington. It provides an incredibly nuanced perspective on modern policing, one that is particularly relevant in the context of the George Floyd murder and subsequent events.

  13. Not a book, but a film, which I would not have heard of if someone on this site (KenK, perhaps?) had not mentioned it. Bad Times at the El Royale. Great sort of heist movie, with a Tarantino vibe.

  14. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I am about 1/4 of the way through and have seen or heard at least 3 references to the book or author since starting it, including a Pearls Before Swine strip. I am in awe of and enjoying his command of the English language and his ability to weave massive compound sentences into a cohesive multi-threaded and multi-character narrative, but will make a recommendation only after I have finished it.

  15. Thanks for the host of reading suggestions in the post + comments! Bookmarked the page and will come back to it for reference.

    I read
    Donna Tartt’s the Goldfinch years ago when it came out and liked it even better than her Secret history which I read later. I do find that liking a novel does not necessarily mean I will like it again 15 years later.
    Recently I read
    Robert Putnam’s Our kids (on increasing social inequality and the deterioration of living conditions and life chances for children from less well off household, which I highly recommend.
    Hugo Mercier’s Not born yesterday: The Science of who we trust and what we believe
    I found it a bit lame at the start (knowing most of the research already), but it grew more interesting later and I think his point that it is not so easy to influence people and why is well made and valid, and I would see Trump’s election as a case in point (although he apparently doesn’t). It’s an easy read but a bit repetitive.
    Among the notable books (a tome really) I read during the past year is
    Joachim Radkau’s Umwelt und Macht (English as: Environment and Power),
    a world history of environmental problems encountered by humans and attempts at their solution which in turn often engendered other environmental problems. It’s a long and academic read but I found it well worth my time and was never bored.

  16. Here are my recent favorites: Midnight at Chernobyl (self explanatory; reads like a heavy spy novel but all true); War of Two (John Sedgwick, great great great grandson of a friend of Alexander Hamilton) about not just Hamilton and Burr and the duel but the really exciting politics and personalities of their time…GREAT!); Education of an Idealist (Samatha Power, poor little Irish girl makes good, moves to top of the power tower in Washington and the UN, hugs Obama, makes good, marries up).

  17. I am late to the conversation, but have a couple of suggestions. First, I want to second the recommendation for Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites. In fact, I am an admirer of pretty much all the man’s work. He left us too soon. I’ll just also mention his Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. Lasch was a student of the great progressive historian Richard Hofstadter, whose The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-intellectualism in American Life are still well worth a read.

    Then a plug for a much more recent work, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? The term “meritocracy” gets thrown out pretty regularly here, mostly with approbation. Sandel’s work has led to my thinking differently on that. I have not seen his BBC series, The Public Philosopher, perhaps those on here from across the pond can speak to that.

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