I’ve finished my second novel in my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners (I read eight before I started this odyssey). The latest one was one was The God of Small Things written by Arundhati Roy. Published in 1997, it won the Booker the same year.
This is just a mini-review as I’m still processing the book. To avoid spoilers, I’ll be brief.
The plot involves a pair of fraternal twins (boy and girl) growing up in Kerala, India in the 1960s in an extended family of Christians. The story, which jumps back and forth in time over about 25 years, touches on many aspects of Indian life, including the Communism of Kerala (India’s only Communist state), the caste system—still very much alive then, and the ambiguity of love. The central story is the close relationship between the boy, Estha, and his sister Rahel, which borders on romantic love. Their close relationship with each other ultimately culminates in a not-so-wonderful act of incest near the end. Both are also involved in a close but platonic relationship with a “dalit”, or untouchable, who befriends them and ultimately becomes the lover of their mother. That forbidden love triggers the shocking ending of the book.
When I was about halfway through this book, I found the writing so atrocious—with the author seemingly trying to show off by capitalizing words to emphasize them, using the same phrase over and over again with slight variations, and spelling words them in weird ways (“Gnap” for nap)—that I almost put the book down. Even though the peculiarities of spelling and grammar may reflect the view of a child, it’s ultimately annoying.
It is only near the end, when the family finds out that the twins’ mother is involved with a dalit, do things pick up, the bad writing falls away, and the story becomes mesmerizing. It is this contrast between the slow and annoying bulk of the book with the absorbing finale that makes me unable to pass judgment on the book right now. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t know if it merits a Booker.
“The God of Small Things”, by the way, is a leitmotif, reflecting the fact that seemingly insignificant occurrences can have huge consequences.
My advice is “read it”, because many critics loved the thing, though some felt the way I do: conflicted at best.
I’m ready for my next Booker Book, but I’ve been sidetracked because a good friend just finished Ishiguro’s new novel and wrote me this about it:
I read Ishiguro’s latest recently, Klara and the Sun. It is, again, a superb and profound (and profoundly touching) novel.
My friend has excellent taste in literature, so I’ve asked the U of C’s Interlibrary Loan to get me a copy of (I have no room on my shelves to buy books). Meanwhile, I’m pondering the reader’ last suggestions for Booker winners. I’ll have to read Klara first because I simply love Ishiguro. Klara and the Sun was “longlisted” for the 2021 Booker Prize, but I’m starting to find out that not all Booker winners are masterpieces, at least in my view.
Is the NYT really starting to publish more and more material that could be considered anti-woke? It seems so.
I submit for your approval this op-ed by Pamela Paul, named as an opinion columnist just this year. But she has a long history at the paper:
Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The New York Times in 2022. She was previously the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years, where she oversaw book coverage and hosted the Book Review podcast. She is the author of eight books: “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” (named a best book of 2021 by The Chicago Tribune), “My Life With Bob,” “How to Raise a Reader,” “By the Book,” “Parenting, Inc.,” “Pornified” (a best book of 2005 by The San Francisco Chronicle), “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” (a best book of 2002 by The Washington Post) and “Rectangle Time,” a book for children.
Now, on to the fracas that Paul considers. She describes the usual Woke attempt to cancel a book on ideological grounds before it’s even out or has been read, and then recommends that you read the book and decide for yourself. It also damns the culture that promotes attempts to “deplatform” books before they reach the public. That in itself is anti-woke, for although you may not like the book, Paul recommends that you read it, which means thinking for yourself (not a trait associated with wokeness). Buying it also slightly enriches the author via royalties.
Click to read Paul’s short op-ed:
The book at hand is The Men, by Sandra Newman, which you can order by clicking on the screenshot at the bottom. It comes out just this week, and already the number of stars it’s gotten reflects I think, the attempt to “cancel” it, i.e., persuade people not to buy it. Did these people read the book?
The book’s premise (Paul’s prose):
Imagine a world in which all the men disappear from the planet in a single moment: Planes they were piloting are left unmanned (literally), their female passengers abandoned in midair; men in bed with their girlfriends mysteriously vanish; boys in the playground dematerialize before their mothers’ eyes. The girls and women left behind are given no apparent reason for the sudden absence of half the world’s population.
The result of publishing it:
Now imagine another world — one in which an author proudly announces her forthcoming novel only to be attacked online for its fantastical premise. Months before the book comes out, it is described on Goodreads as a “transphobic, racist, ableist, misogynist nightmare of a book.” On Twitter, people who have yet to read the novel declare that it’s their responsibility to “deplatform” it. When one of the author’s friends, herself a writer, defends the book, she is similarly attacked, and a prominent literary organization withdraws her nomination for a prize for her own book.
Only one of these nightmare scenarios is real.
The first describes the premise of a novel that comes out this week: “The Men” by Sandra Newman. The second is what actually happened when the premise of Newman’s book was revealed.
I was in fact surprised to learn why this book was so viciously attacked, especially because it involves the disappearance of men—the lowest group on the wokeish totem pole. But it’s not that idea that caused the trouble: it’s the idea that there is a real sex binary that allows men to disappear!
And Paul, to her immense credit, defends the book and the author’s right to imagine a world in which there is a sex binary!:
For all the outlandishness of its conceits, science fiction can allow writers and readers access to deeper truths about very real aspects of society, politics and power in creative ways. But apparently Newman got too creative — or too real — for some. That a fictional world would assert the salience of biological sex, however fanciful the context, was enough to upset a vocal number of transgender activists online. They would argue that “men” is a cultural category to which anyone can choose to belong, as opposed to “maleness,” which is defined by genetics and biology.
In this case, we can set aside contentious questions around gender identity and transgender politics. Even if you don’t believe the sex binary is as fundamental to human beings as it is to all other mammals, a fiction writer ought to be free to imagine her own universe, whether as utopian ideal, dystopian horror or some complicated vision in between.
Should the reader dare enter the fictional universe of “The Men,” one thing becomes immediately clear: This is in no way a transphobic novel. It neither denies the existence of transgender people, who are woven into the narrative in several places, nor maligns them. The world Newman creates is as scrupulously diverse as a Marvel franchise movie, populated by gay, lesbian and bisexual characters as well as by straight ones of various ethnicities.
In this fictional world, where the presence of a Y-chromosome dictates who disappears, a strictly biological definition of “man” is viewed as a moral wrong. The main characters are horrified by the fate of the transgender women who get swept up (“unjustly condemned”) and sympathetic to the plight of the transgender men who remain (one character is “paralyzed by the idea that transgender people were still here”).
Note that the book is woke in the sense that a transgender woman is regarded by The Transphobic Force—that which makes “men” disappear—as a biological man. That’s right in with trans-activist philosophy. But that still didn’t appease The Offended, because the Force saw the woman as a biological man.
I can’t help but reproduce a lot of Paul’s prose, as it’s so deliciously rare in the NYT to read stuff like this:
What a sour irony that a dystopian fantasy brought a dark reality one step closer. In this frightful new world, books are maligned in hasty tweets, without even having been read, because of perceived thought crimes on the part of the author. Small but determined interest groups can gather gale force online and unleash scurrilous attacks on ideas they disapprove of or fear, and condemn as too dangerous even to explore.
“I wanted to create a parable of exclusion,” Newman, who describes herself as nonbinary, said in a phone interview. “It’s a book about ‘othering,’ the human tendency to divide people into categories or groups and to think of our group as the real people and other groups as threats to the real people.”
Newman said she tends to favor fiction that explores difficult ideas in bold ways: “People shouldn’t always write nice books.” Where better than literature to examine ideas that may unsettle or challenge?
Most people don’t want to live in a world in which books are vilified without being read and their authors attacked ad hominem for the temerity of having written them.
There’s an answer to attacks like these: Read the book.
YES! READ THE DAMN BOOK! Perhaps under the new leadership at the paper it really is getting saner. The first paragraph above, which damns a Cancel Culture that tries to suppress ideas that aren’t ideologically correct, would have been unthinkable in the NYT two years ago.
If I met Paul I’d give her a big hug of appreciation, but that might be considered harassment.
In my quest to read all the novels that have won the Booker Prize, I finished my first one on the list (I read four or five others in the past): Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee (1999). Highly lauded, it not only won the Booker Prize, but was a major impetus for Coetzee’s getting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.
Not wanting to convey spoilers, I’ll just say that the story involves two parallel cases of “disgrace”: a professor who has an affair with one of his students and then, refusing to defend himself, is fired; and the Professor’s daughter, with whom he goes to live after his expulsion. She too meets up with an even worse fate, but again refuses to take steps to assure her a better life after her own misfortune. In both cases I take “disgrace” to mean a character’s refusal to try to mend a broken life.
I found the novel readable (not saying a lot) and the plot engrossing, but the prose plodding. When I really love a novel, the prose has to be a major factor, just as the musicality of poetry is an inseparable part of its overall effect. When the Nobel Prize committee gave Coetzee its citation, it said, among other things, this:
J.M. Coetzee’s novels are characterised by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. But at the same time he is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation. His intellectual honesty erodes all basis of consolation and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession. Even when his own convictions emerge to view, as in his defence of the rights of animals, he elucidates the premises on which they are based rather than arguing for them.
Coetzee’s interest is directed mainly at situations where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal clear, can be seen to serve no end. Like the man in the famous Magritte painting who is studying his neck in a mirror, at the decisive moment Coetzee’s characters stand behind themselves, motionless, incapable of taking part in their own actions. But passivity is not merely the dark haze that devours personality, it is also the last resort open to human beings as they defy an oppressive order by rendering themselves inaccessible to its intentions. It is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark in man.
. . .In Disgrace Coetzee involves us in the struggle of a discredited university teacher to defend his own and his daughter’s honour in the new circumstances that have arisen in South Africa after the collapse of white supremacy. The novel deals with a question that is central to his works: Is it possible to evade history?
Well, maybe, but I’m not sure what “evading history” means here? Overcoming misfortune, or simply denying it? Both the professor and his daughter are stuck with what happened to them, and refuse to move on, so if that’s “evading history,” well, it’s not something that everyone does. In fact, Coetzee’s failure to make me really understand why the professor refused to defend himself seems a failure of character delineation.
The theme, then, isn’t anything near universal, at least to me. One can understand the feeling of ennui and hopelessness in The Plague, which can be redeemed by caring for others, but that’s something that resonates to many readers. After all, we’re all mortal.
So my take is that Disgrace is a good book, but not a great one—not near the quality of other winners like those by Ishigura, Barker, or Scott. Yet sometimes I think I don’t know how to read novels, and perhaps I’m missing the subtle themes and qualities that struck other critics, the Booker Prize committee, and the Karolinska Institute.
But nevertheless, I persist. I am halfway through the next choice, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, which won the Booker in 1997. It’s about a pair of twins and their extended family in Kerala, India, and is set in the 1960s. So far I found the plot engaging (it goes back and forth in time) but the prose overly baroque, with Roy apparently trying to show off her writing skills. At times the writing is so self-consciously “clever” that it makes me cringe. The style, while unusual, doesn’t seem to grow out of the author herself, as it does with writers like Cormac McCarthy, whom I love.
By the way, I noticed a similarity between Roy’s opening paragraph and part Thomas Wolfe’s “Poem to October” from his novel Of Time and the River:
“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”
“October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
Any more suggestions for Booker winners I should read next?
It’s a sleepy day at the University today, as everyone (save me) is Out of the Office enjoying the holiday. I, too, will take off early, but first I want a book recommendation, as I finished my last book two days ago. (I no longer buy books as I have no room on my shelves, but get them from the UC Library, which can get anything if you include interlibrary loans.)
Some time ago I vowed that I’d work my way through all the Booker Prize winners, the first of which was announced in 1969. I’ve read a few (see below), but would like some recommendations. The stacks are closed at the Regenstein Library across the street, so I have to make a “pick up” request. You can see the list of winners at the link above, and I’ll give you the winners I’ve already read. Then I’m asking for me a couple of suggestions.
Why the Booker Prize? Because I’ve found the quality of the winners to be higher than, say, America’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Booker Winner that was a dud, though The Siege of Krishnapur I found tedious at times.
Here’s ones you needn’t recommend as I’ve already read them.
In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell
Staying Onby Paul Scott
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
That leaves a lot of books to consider! Let me add that I think several of the books I’ve read from the list are world-class novels, and if you enjoy fiction you must read them. I’ve put them in bold above.
Two notes here: Staying On is the sequel to Scott’s four novels The Raj Quartet, and the Quartet is in fact better than the sequel, though all are worth reading. I was pleased to discover, many years after I’d read the five novels, that Christopher Hitchens praised the quintet highly. You must read them all in sequence.
Likewise, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker is the third volume of her WWI trilogy, called, in toto, The Regeneration Trilogy. Like Scott’s work, all preceding books in the series should be read before you tackle the winner. The bold print indicates the whole series of which the book is a part.
Ishiguro is always worth reading, and The Remains of the Dayis in my view his best; it’s also a fantastic movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Midnight’s Children, which I discovered completely by accident browsing at a book vendor’s at Connaught Place during my first long trip to India, is the best of all the “magical realism” novels, and garnered an extra Booker Award:
It also was awarded The Best of the Booker prize twice, in 1993 and 2008 (this was an award given out by the Booker committee to celebrate the 25th and 40th anniversary of the award).
Any help rendered will be appreciated, but do stick to Booker Prize winners. Reading them all is on my bucket list.
The essay below just appeared on Bari Weiss’s Substack (I believe the piece os free, though I subscribe, as should you if you read often). The essay is by William Deresiewicz, an author who taught English at Yale and wrote a book summarizing the essay below, as well as a new book coming out in August. First the two books (click on screenshot to access Amazon links):
First, the book from 2015; it gets high ratings and was a New York Times bestseller (I haven’t read it):
The new essay book, out August 23. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:
What is the internet doing to us? What is college for? What are the myths and metaphors we live by? These are the questions that William Deresiewicz has been pursuing over the course of his award-winning career. The End of Solitude brings together more than forty of his finest essays, including four that are published here for the first time. Ranging widely across the culture, they take up subjects as diverse as Mad Men and Harold Bloom, the significance of the hipster, and the purpose of art. Drawing on the past, they ask how we got where we are. Scrutinizing the present, they seek to understand how we can live more mindfully and freely, and they pose two fundamental questions: What does it mean to be an individual, and how can we sustain our individuality in an age of networks and groups?
And today’s essay; click screenshot to read:
The piece deals with how to reconcile two phenomena Deresiewicz observed in his Yale students (his quotes are indented), and whether they’re connected with Wokeness:
I taught English at Yale University for ten years. I had some vivid, idiosyncratic students—people who went on to write novels, devote themselves to their church, or just wander the world for a few years. But mostly I taught what one of them herself called “excellent sheep.”
These students were excellent, technically speaking. They were smart, focused, and ferociously hard-working.
But they were also sheep: stunted in their sense of purpose, waiting meekly for direction, frequently anxious and lost.
Now I can’t comment on undergraduates any longer, as I’m too far removed from the classroom. Certainly a lot of undergraduate behavior I read about, like the assault on Gibson’s Bakery by Oberlin students (and Oberlin College), or the shenanigans at Evergreen State College, bespeak immaturity as well as conformity. (I’m of course not denying a large element of conformity in the student society of the antiwar Sixties, but, as this essay argues, that was a different kind of rebellion.
1.)We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)
2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)
3.)We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)
I don’t think one can entertain much doubt that these tropes are ubiquitous in secondary schools and campuses, and are also impediments to emotional maturity.
As an example of emotional immaturity, Deresiewicz mentions the the opprobrium that rained down on his ex Yale colleagues Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika when Erika wrote an email to the students in their “house” (they supervised a residential group of undergrads) saying that students use their own judgement when choosing Halloween costumes.
Well, the idea that one should use one’s judgement rather than follow Woke dictates got the students so riled up that both Nicholas and Erika, after being verbally assaulted in the most horrible way (see below) left Silliman House, and Erika left Yale for good.
It still gives me the chills to watch this video of a bunch of students yelling at Christakis at Yale after the “Halloween” incident. Can anyone deny that these students are, well, damn immature, as well as entitled?
Why is this video relevant? Because, says Deresiewicz, it raises a question:
I was so struck by this—that our “best and brightest” students are so often as helpless as children—that I wrote a book about it. It came out in 2014, not long before my former colleague Nicholas Christakis was surrounded and browbeaten by a crowd of undergraduates for failing to make them feel coddled and safe—an early indication of the rise of what we now call wokeness.
How to reconcile the two phenomena, I started to wonder. Does wokeness, with its protests and pugnacity, represent an end to sheephood, a new birth of independence and self-assertion, of countercultural revolt? To listen to its radical-sounding sloganeering—about tearing down systems and doing away with anyone and anything deemed incorrect—it sure sounded like it.
But indications suggest otherwise. Elite college graduates are still herding toward the same five vocational destinations—law, medicine, finance, consulting, and tech—in overwhelming numbers. High-achieving high school students, equally woke, are still crowding toward the same 12 or 20 schools, whose application numbers continue to rise. This year, for example, Yale received some 50,000 applications, more than twice as many as 10 years ago, of which the university accepted less than 4.5%.
Eventually, I recognized the deeper continuities at work. Excellent sheephood, like wokeness, is a species of conformity. As a friend who works at an elite private university recently remarked, if the kids who get into such schools are experts at anything, it is, as he put it, “hacking the meritocracy.” The process is imitative: You do what you see the adults you aspire to be like doing. If that means making woke-talk (on your college application; in class, so professors will like you), then that is what you do.
You might respond that no, we’re seeing real protest here, an assault on authority. Deresiewicz counters that a). these protests are not countercultural, but simply an amplified version of their parents’ views, and b). they differ from protests of the Sixties as the purpose today is “to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff.” He argues:
Wokeness functions as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. If you can tell yourself that you are really doing it to “make the world a better place” (the ubiquitous campus cliché), then the whole thing goes down a lot easier.
Finally, here’s Deresiewicz’s claim that students need to grow up:
In a recent column, Freddie deBoer remarked, in a different context, that for the young progressive elite, “raised in comfortable and affluent homes by helicopter parents,” “[t]here was always some authority they could demand justice from.” That is the precise form that campus protests have taken in the age of woke: appeals to authority, not defiance of it. Today’s elite college students still regard themselves as children, and are still treated as such. The most infamous moment to emerge from the Christakis incident, captured on a video the world would later see, exemplifies this perfectly. Christakis’s job as the head of a residential college, a young woman (one could more justly say, a girl) shriek-cried at him, “is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home!”
We are back to in loco parentis, in fact if not in law. College is now regarded as the last stage of childhood, not the first of adulthood. But one of the pitfalls of regarding college as the last stage of childhood is that if you do so then it very well might not be. The nature of woke protests, the absence of Covid and other protests, the whole phenomenon of excellent sheephood: all of them speak to the central dilemma of contemporary youth, which is that society has not given them any way to grow up—not financially, not psychologically, not morally.
The problem, at least with respect to the last two, stems from the nature of the authority, parental as well as institutional, that the young are now facing. It is an authority that does not believe in authority, that does not believe in itself. That wants to be liked, that wants to be your friend, that wants to be thought of as cool. That will never draw a line, that will always ultimately yield.
If this claim be true, what can we do about it? In this piece, at least, Deresiewicz is a bit short on remedies, though perhaps they’re in his big book.
Here are a couple of my remedies. First, treat students like adults. When I urged one of my colleagues to reply to a misguided student op-ed in the Chicago Maroon, I was told that professors should not criticize students, for that constitutes “punching down.” And that is pure guano. When students enter college, they deserve the respect of having their professors engage them in civil debate, not to have the faculty kowtow to them even in disagreement. Of course one must try to deal with the psychological stresses and competition that bear on students in elite colleges, at least, but in matters intellectual and political, shouldn’t should be treated as equals. (Except, of course, when it comes to letting them exercise power over the university.)
Second, ensure that every student entering college is given a good orientation in free speech: what it is, why we have it, and what happens when we don’t have it. I hope dearly that the University of Chicago will do this, but there’s no telling. And, of course, the Chicago Foundational Principles, including those of Free Expression and the Kalven report, should be adopted and in all colleges and universities.
In the end, though, if the attitude of entitlement and immaturity derives from a new way of raising children, as Lukianoff and Haidt claim, then the problems start much earlier. And I don’t know from child rearing.
Why does this matter? Because, as I’ve think we’ve learned, many of the problems afflicting our side, the Left, begin in college. Deresiewicz would argue that they’re sent out in the world without the requisite maturity. I’m not sure I agree 100% with that, but, as As Andrew Sullivan said sagely, “We’re all on campus now.” What is playing out in Hollywood, in the mainstream media, and on social media are all attitudes that began in universities. Ignore what’s happening on campus at your own peril.
I’m a sucker for lists of what people are reading, as it tells us something about them and also can be a source of good things to read. I suppose, though, that when a famous person is asked what books they’re reading, they may well pad the list with books that make them look more serious and intellectual.
But I don’t think that’s the case with this list from Blinkist Magazine of nine books that Elon Musk found extremely influential in his life. Now Blinkist seems a bit slippery to me, since its mission appears to be to distill long books down into bite-size 15-minute audio bits that can help you succeed. And it’s all about what will help you get ahead in life, rather than books that could change your point of view.
Nevertheless, this is a genuine list of books that Musk reads, and it says he “reads a lot”:
Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and other game-changing tech companies, somehow finds time to read a lot of books when he’s not sending rockets into space. From classic sci-fi works to complex studies on artificial intelligence, Musk credits books with helping him achieve his success. In fact, when asked how he learned to build rockets, he famously replied, “I read books.”
But to tout its Reader’s Digest-like format, Blinkist also adds at the beginning:
According to a study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics, most Americans find time to read just 17 minutes per day. At that rate, it could take you more than a month to read one of Musk’s recommended non-fiction titles.
OH NO! Well, why nottry reading more than 17 minutes a day! And noting that Americans can’t “find the time” to read just 17 minutes a day” don’t impress me much. Think of the hours that the average person spends online or in front of the telly.
But I fulminate. Here’s the list of the books Musk recommends. The article gives a short paragraph on each, which I won’t reproduce (click screenshot to read). I’ve added the Amazon link to each book, and also note whether I’ve read it:
1.) Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. A biography; I haven’t read it.
3.) Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Master. It’s about how to build a business; I haven’t read it.
4.) Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway. It’s about disinformation and environmental issues, and I haven’t read it.
5.) Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark. Another book about AI, and one I haven’t read.
6.) The Big Picture by Sean M. Carroll. Now I’m impressed, as this has no business relevance but shows pure intellectual curiosity on Musk’s part. I have read it, and liked it.
7.) Lying by Sam Harris. Another impressive book; I have read it. While it’s not one of Sam’s best (I disagree with his view that it’s never okay to lie), it’s nevertheless a thoughtful work. But I would have preferred that if Musk recommended a short life-changing book by Harris, it would have been Free Will.
9.) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read it, but it’s the one real “classic” on Musk’s list.
Now remember, these are books that Musk says could “change your life”, and I suspect he means that largely in a vocational sense.
I could make a list of nine or ten books that changed my life, but could not ever guarantee that they’d change yours (one of mine would be Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis). But I will divulge the two books I’m reading now (I usually read one at a time):
1.) What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Mechanics by Adam Becker. This is an absorbing book that I picked up in my lifelong and desperate quest to understand something that I’ll never grasp. Yes, I know the phenomena, but this book is about whether quantum mechanics is simply a useful mathematical apparatus for predicting things, or actually describes a real, underlying world. So far I’m a third of the way through, and don’t know the answer.
2.) People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn. I’ve just begun this, and don’t have much to say about it yet. Horn is a prizewinning novelist, but here she tackles the striking fact that whenever she’s asked to write about Jews (she is Jewish), it’s always about dead Jews, as in the Holocaust. This seeming affection for ex-Jews contrasts with the rising anti-Semitism Horn sees in the present, and the fact that she’s not asked to write about living Jews.
I also just finished a book that a reader recommended: the 1400-page doorstopper A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (a good travel book). I thought it was very good, though could have used a bit of pruning, especially in the bit about politics. Also, the main character, Lata, never seems to come to life in a way that some of the other characters do. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, finished it, and am grateful for the suggestion.
So, this is your own cue to let us know what you are reading, and whether you recommend it.
The tweet below from Steve PInker, which is spot on, brought this NYT book review to my attention. Once again, the paper dilates on the supernatural without any warning to the reader that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Yet the book review implies that there might be something to it.
Here’s the tweet:
Yet again the NYT treats the paranormal credulously, failing to indicate clearly that it does not, um, exist. Harnessing ESP to Forestall Death and Disaster https://t.co/WugzOVR5yj
The NYT piece reviews this book (note the title). The account may be true, but the “death foretold”? Fuggedabout it. (Click to go to Amazon link):
The author of this big of clickbait is W. M. Akers, whose bona fides, as given by the NYT, are “W.M. Akers is the author of “Westside,” “Deadball: Baseball With Dice” and the newsletter “Strange Times.” His most recent novel is “Westside Lights.”
The review (click to read):
Knight’s book tells the story of a British psychiatrist named John Baker, who was drawn to the supernatural and especially to precognition. He thought that if he could suss out credible instances of people foreseeing disasters, he might be able to prevent those disasters (think of a non-crime version of precogs in “Minority Report”). Here’s one instance of precognition that got Baker’s juices flowing:
n Oct. 21, 1966, Lorna Middleton woke up choking. The sensation passed, leaving behind melancholy and a sense of impending doom. After a lifetime of experiencing premonitions of misery and death, Middleton, a North London piano teacher, recognized the signs. Something hideous was on the way.
A few hours later, workers on a heap of coal waste in South Wales watched with horror as the 111-foot tower of “spoil” collapsed and cascaded down the mountain toward the village of Aberfan — thousands of tons of slurry and rock bearing down on the primary school. It was just past 10 in the morning and the classrooms were full of students doing spelling exercises, singing songs, learning math. When a 30-foot wave of refuse slammed into the building, they were buried alive. One hundred and forty-four people died that day. One hundred and sixteen were children, most between 7 and 10 years old. It was the sort of horror that makes people demand meaning — the sort for which meaning is rarely found.
Now that’s not a very precise example of precognition, is it? In fact, thousands of people probably had bad dreams that night, and where is the coal spoil in Middleton’s nonspecific dream? This seems like nothing more than pure coincidence. And how could precognition work, anyway? This doesn’t appear to be a subject of much interest to Knight—or Akers.
But in fact coincidence is what Baker was trawling for, looking for cases in which real “precogs” could be used in a practical way. If only the exact nature of the disaster could be predicted! Baker got to work, teaming up with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraine headaches were supposed to predict disasters (but of what sort?) and Lorna Middleton, who had the bad dream that was followed by the coal-spoil avalanche::
Barker used his connections at The Evening Standard to solicit premonitions of the disaster. He found 22 he believed credible, including Middleton’s — he believed any vision accompanied by physical symptoms to be particularly strong. On the back of this research, The Standard recruited Barker to create a standing “Premonitions Bureau” that could catalog predictions and check to see how many came true. The Standard brass saw it as an offbeat way to sell papers. Barker considered it his chance to save the world.
“He wanted an instrument that was sensitive enough to capture intimations that were otherwise impossible to detect,” writes Knight. “He envisaged the fully fledged Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearinghouse to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes.’ Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a databank for the nation’s dreams and visions — ‘mass premonitions,’ Barker later called them — and issue alerts based on the visions it received.”
So were any disasters averted? Nope, of course not. What we got is what we expected: there were dozens of premonitions, and some of them roughly matched something that happened, but most (more than 97%) did not. And even when they didn’t, they stretched the premonitions so they’d be sort-of true:
In the first week of 1967, Barker and the Standard staff began sorting predictions into categories like “Royalty,” “Racing,” Fire” and “Non-specified disasters.” (The science correspondent Peter Fairley often drew on the racing file for betting tips.) Once categorized, they would wait to see what happened, and attempt to connect the tragedies on the news page with the prophecies in their files.
Along with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraines seemed to anticipate disaster, Middleton became Barker’s best source. He greeted her successful predictions with glee. When the death of the astronaut Vladimir Komarov bore out her warning of peril in space, Barker wrote to say, “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after months of her warning that his life was in danger, Barker called it her best work yet.
But what about Middleton’s unsuccessful predictions—her “worst work”? The review says nothing, except that they fudged the unsuccessful guesses to make them seem more accurate:
If they sometimes had to stretch to make the news fit what Middleton and her fellows dreamed up — letting tornadoes in the Midwest satisfy a prediction of catastrophic weather in California, for instance — Barker saw no problem. He was overjoyed with the success of his star psychics and hoped to scour the country to find more like them. He believed second sight was as common as left-handedness. It didn’t matter that the premonitions were rarely specific enough to be useful, warning simply of a train to derail somewhere, an airliner to crash at some point. Barker believed he was onto something cosmic.
Rarely specific enough to be useful? Why don’t they give us one instance in which a predication wasuseful, and evidence that the predictions that proved accurate were more common than could be accounted for by coincidence (e.g., was there one person whose precognitions were almost invariably accurate?) If this worked, that person would have won a million bucks from James Randi (nobody ever did). Even according to the author’s count, only 3% of the predictions “came true” (mostly from MIddleton and Hetcher). And that, I’m sure, is stretching it.
The text here gives one no assurance that anything other than coincidence was involved. To make a scientific and definitive statement about the efficacy of precognition, you’d need a rigorous and accurate set of tests, tests incorporating fraud-detectors like James Randi. There are no such tests that have proved successful. The NYT does not mention this.
But wait! There was one “successful” prediction: Middleton and Hencher predicted that Barker would soon die (they give no date) and a year and a half after the “predictions bureau” was founded, Barker had a cerebral hemorrhage and croaked. Is that uncanny, or just coincidence?
The review concludes that the precog experiment was indeed “worth a shot”:
Barker’s psychics’ predictions had proved accurate, but they did not help him avoid his fate. He had hoped to use the Bureau to change the future. It had not even come close. By Knight’s count, only 3 percent of the Bureau’s predictions came true — nearly all of the successes from Middleton and Hencher. It found no useful data and prevented no tragedies. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot.
“We confer meaning as a way to control our existence,” writes Knight. “It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening.”
Three percent is better than nothing. Even false meaning is preferable to fear.
I’m sorry to have to say this, but that conclusion is bullshit. If “false meaning is preferable to fear”, then we should all become religious. And, anyway, what kind of fear does 3% of coincidental matches dispel? What is the frightening abyss into which we must gaze if none of the predictions were even remotely true? The last two paragraphs are pure New Yorker-style prose: they sound good, but they say nothing.
Some of the evidence for precognition that people found convincing came from Daryl Bem. This evidence has not held up (see also here). Doesn’t the NYT or its authors owe us that information, or the fact that there is no conceivable way that the laws of physics could even allow precognition? No, because the paper is are wedded to cosseting our “spiritual” side.
You’d have to be a long-time reader of this site to remember the story of my interaction with Eric Hedin, a physicist at Ball State University (a public college) in Muncie, Indiana. It’s recounted in many posts here going back 2013 (see here and here, for instance).
In short, Hedin, a deeply religious Christian, couldn’t bring himself to leave God out of his non-major’s honors course at Ball State: “The Boundaries of Science”. I got hold of his syllabus, did some investigation, and realized that Hedin was teaching his students a form of Intelligent Design in a public university. Much of the course was directed, as the title suggests, at showing why phenomena in nature could not be explained by science, naturalism, or materialism—implying that a supernatural God was responsible.
Now the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, argued in a federal district court in Pennsylvania, ended in a ruling by John Jones (a Republican judge!) that intelligent design, being taught in the school, was “not science”. ID was instead, ruled Jones, a disguised form of religion whose teaching violated the First Amendment.
On December 20, 2005, Jones issued his 139-page findings of fact and decision ruling that the Dover mandate requiring the statement to be read in class was unconstitutional. The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring ID to be taught as an alternative theory.
Another happy ending: all eight of the school board members who had approved the use of an ID textbook in the Dover High School lost their election bids to candidates who opposed the teaching of ID. Further, the Dover Area School district had to pay over a million dollars in fines. Faced with similar outcomes and bankrupting of schools, no more cases like this were adjudicated. The defendants indicated they would not appeal, and since then teaching ID in public schools has been a legal no-no.
So, eight years later, when I saw that Hedin was teaching ID at a state University, I wrote to his chairman (and, as I recall, his colleagues), calling attention to this violation. I was blown off, but then the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved (Ceiling Cat bless them). Note that at no time did I call for Hedin’s firing or desired to damage his career; I simply wanted the school to stop teaching creationism as a form of science.
The FFRF wrote one of its official (and implicitly threatening) letters to the President and officials of Ball State, them that Hedin’s course was violating the Constitution. The President launched an investigation, and it transpired that Hedin was ordered to stop teaching that course. A rare victory for good science!
Hedin was later promoted to associate professor, a promotion I supported so long as he didn’t drag religion into his teaching. Still, he beefed all the while that he, a “young assistant professor”, had been hounded and harassed by the likes of an established professor (me) and the FFRF.
Hedin eventually gave up his job at Ball State and moved to teaching physics at Biola University in Los Angeles (the name comes from its former one: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles). There he apparently found a congenial niche, since it’s a private religious school and he can drag God and Jesus into any science course he wants. (I weep for the poor students subjected to this nonsense.)
Then Hedin went public with his “story”—the story of how a assistant professor just trying to do his job was canceled by the FFRF and a well- known professor. The implication was that the FFRF and I were trying to destroy Hedin—to “cancel” a man.
But he wasn’t canceled—his course was. The man was promoted, for crying out loud!
Hedin recently published a whole book about this dustup: Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See, published in February of 2021 by the Discovery Institute (presumably no reputable publisher wanted it). It didn’t sell very well, hardly got any reviews, and is way down there in the rankings of creationist books, many of which have sold well in the past (e.g. Darwin’s Black Box, and Signature in the Cell; the books, I suspect, are snapped up by the many anti-evolution and religious Americans who seek confirmation of their views).
I also suspect that the poor sales and lack of reviews of Canceled Science are the reason that the Discovery Institute continues to flog the book on its website (e.g., see here, and here), at the same time denigrating the FFRF and me for trying to “cancel” Hedin. I have to laugh when I see this campaign; nobody got canceled, for it was all about the separation of church and state. But it’s too late for Hedin to beef, as nobody’s interested, and his 15 minutes of fame are up.
Here’s the book:
Recently, the Discovery Institute taped a 45-minute lecture by Hedin on his book and his persecution (he sees himself in the tradition of Christian martyrs tortured for their faith), and I put the video below. Its YouTube notes:
Eric Hedin, author of Canceled Science, explains how he was canceled by the scientific establishment and reflects on the lessons he learned during the experience. He also discusses scientific evidence which points to a Creator. This talk was presented at the 2022 Dallas Conference on Science and Faith in January 2022.
You can listen to it if you want, though the “evidence” for ID, filtered through a physicist rather than a biologist, is even more risible than usual. The reason I’m putting it up is because reader Beth sent me the video link adding, “Eric Hedin drew a cartoon for you, showing you with a cat being invited by Jesus to “come Home” (22:47 in the video).” Now how could I resist that?
Actually, it was Hedin’s wife who drew the cartoon, as a “picture for Jerry Coyne” as well as “offer of forgiveness” for me (in good Christian tradition, Hedin forgives all of us who “persecuted” him). And the cartoon is below, captured from a screenshot of a slide:
LOL! Well, I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hedin, but I ain’t coming home to Jesus, and neither is any cat: it’s well known that all cats are atheists.
Now that you’ve seen that, you may, if you wish, listen to Hedin’s talk, heavily larded with references to God, Jesus, and the Bible. (As I said, he’s found a good home at Biola.)
If you want to skip the self-serving and humble beginning, I’d listen to the last 20 minutes, beginning at 24:40 (before The Picture), and listen to Hedin tick off the things that science can’t ever explain and therefore prove Jesus.
Here are a few of Hedin’s “failures of naturalism”:
It can’t explain the beginning of the Universe, and thus of space and time, using principles of physics within space and time. You have to go outside that stuff—i.e., you have to invoke God.
The existence of complex living things can’t be explained by naturalism. Hedin apparently sees evolution as a “random” process, and has forgotten about natural selection, which acts to order random changes in the DNA into well adapted organisms.
Materialism can’t explain the “information barrier”: the suggestion that if there are more ways for a process to go wrong than right, then the process will go wrong. Thus there can be no increase in “information” under evolution. No anteaters, dandelions, or humans. That takes God. But this is wrong. Of course there can be an increase in information over evolutionary time; there’s just no decrease in entropy.
Materialism can’t explain the ability of humans to think rational thoughts.
I won’t waste my time rebutting this all in detail; Google is your friend here. All I can say is that, as a physicist, he makes a damn poor critic of evolutionary biology. Years ago I wrote a critique of ID, “The case against Intelligent Design,” which appeared in the New Republic and is now reprinted on the Brockman Edge site. If you want my views on ID, see that.
One of the most telling statements by Hedin occurs at the end of his talk, when he confesses that his Christianity is based not on evidence, but on “faith”, euphemistically called “the witness of the spirit”:
“I’ve written a lot more about evidence for design in my book and I’ve even made the connection with my own faith there. I believe that what we see in nature can strengthen our faith, but that my faith is really based is really based on my relationship with God: through the witness of the Spirit in my inner being.”
So, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, here’s the video of Dr. Hedin, a man of soft manner and amiability, showing how he’s become the modern equivalent of Christians thrown to the lions. (I’ve recently read, however, that the Roman scenario of lions and Christians is false.)
Start 24 minutes in, and then you have to listen for only 20 minutes:
I’ll be traveling for a month starting in about ten days, and I need something to read in airports and in spare moments on the ship. I can’t think of anything at the moment, and so I’m crowdsourcing a book. Here are the criteria:
a.) It has to be VERY LARGE
b.) It should be nonfiction although I’d make an exception for a long, high-quality work of fiction.
c.) It should align with my interests as far as readers here know them (i.e., no mystery books or similar light reads). Books I’ve read that are long and interesting include every book in Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of LBJ (and of Robert Moses), Bloodlands (which I’ve just finished). History, biography, popular science (or science biography), and the like are great.
I welcome suggestions below, perhaps with a few words about why you like the book.
The complete title of McWhorter’s new book is Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, and we’ve talked before about some of the contents that McWhorter posted on his earlier Substack column. The book isn’t yet out in paperback, but I got a hardback copy several weeks ago from interlibrary loan. (I have no more room to put books on my shelves–not even 2 inches of space.) The book is available now only in hardcover, but you can either wait until the paperback appears this fall, get it from the library, borrow it, or buy the hardbound copy for $18.01. But don’t wait to read it.
I recommend it most highly. (You knew I would.) It’s a short read—187 pages of text—and written in a simple but punchy style. McWhorter doesn’t pull any of those punches, either, describing the performative character of “woke racism” in a way that only a black man could get away with. (For instance, he says that a lot of people’s offense is simply a lie.)
You can get a taste of the style from the Amazon site “look inside” feature, and the topics from Table of Contents. Here are the contents and then a table from the first chapter which shows the contradictory nature of what McWhorter calls “third wave racism” (Electism):
A screeenshot, since I can’t transcribe it:
The lens through which McWhorter views “wokeism” is as a religion: a real religion, not just a metaphor for religions that worship a God. Although I don’t think this trope is absolutely necessary for McWhorter to make his case, but it does add considerably to our understanding of the phenomenon. The “Elect” (his word for the “woke”) will brook no dissent, believe in an original sin (racism, of course), demonize those who are against them, cast them to a social-media hell (or worse: getting them fired or banned), have a common set of tenets that, as shown above, contradict each other (cf. Christianity: God is loving but if you don’t accept him you’ll burn forever), and have a set of inerrant prophets, including Ibram Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their words are not to be questioned; the prophets are to be worshipped and evoked as often as possible.
The book is not intended for The Elect because, as McWhorter asserts, their minds aren’t open. That’s true, just as my book Faith Versus Fact wasn’t intended for fundamentalist religionists. In both cases our books were intended for either those on the fence, those with open minds or, in McWhorter’s case, for those who already dislike Wokeness but want a critical analysis of its flaws as well as some bucking up. Wokeism may, for instance, repel you for reasons you don’t understand, and McWhorter supplies those reasons.
There are several, and since this isn’t a full review, I’ll just touch on them. First, “Electism” (or, as I prefer, “Wokeism”) is largely performative: it is a show of virtue without really accomplishing anything to lessen the inequalities that have plagued black people. How, for example, does firing a professor who explicates the “fill-in” word in Chinese “ne-gah” (just as “like” is a fill-in word in American English), accomplish anything to eradicate racism? We know of dozens of such performances. Academia is full of them, and they’ve spilled over into society at large. I see them every day.
Don’t get McWhorter wrong: he does see inequality of blacks and whites as a serious problem, but also thinks that black people have to lend a hand in helping us fix it. I’ll mention his solutions below. But by laying out the arrant stupidity (well, “misguidedness”) of performative Electism, he not only helps us understand it, but also to fight it and to stop flagellating ourselves as irreparably broken racists. In this sense it is heartening. It doesn’t aim to perpetuate racism by mitigating white guilt, but to show that much of that guilt is unwarranted.
In fact, McWhorter’s notion is that Electism actually harms black people in several ways. One way, which I’ve seen at my own university, is by infantilizing them: treating them as an especially sensitive group that must be coddled rather than respected. Once you realize how this infantilizing is done—and it’s done by both blacks and whites, but is especially odious when by whites—you can see signs of it everywhere. And this infantilizing leads to lower both the expectations we have for black achievement as well as the standards that we hold everyone to. It is, in fact, the very reason why the meritocracy is being dismantled, and why colleges and schools are getting rid of standardized tests. But this doesn’t help black people. How could it? It may get more of them into universities, but McWhorter claims that, in the elite schools at least, poor secondary-school education plus a culture not based prizing learning leads to many black students being underprepared, and either dropping out of or changing schools.
Another virtue of the book is that, like Mill’s “On Liberty,” McWhorter constantly anticipates the objections of the Woke and defuses them in advance. These include the idea that McWhorter must be a self-hating black, that we need affirmative action for all minorities, whether or not they’re disadvantaged, and that affirmative action must be based solely on how one is grouped racially. It must also last forever.
The initial chapters describe the phenomenon of Electism, make the case that it’s a real religion, and give many examples—you’ll be familiar with some—of how Electism plays out in everyday life. It’s horrifying to see what the Elect have gotten away with, but of course they get away with their shenanigans for one reason only: white people really don’t want to be called racists, and will do nearly anything to avoid that label.
Electness meets the road in the last two chapters. Chapter 5 contains McWhorter’s recommendations for how to really help black people. They may sound too few, or too silly, but the more one thinks about them, the more they make sense. In his view, there are only three correctives.
1.) End the war on drugs
2.) Teach reading properly (he recommends phonics, and knows whereof he speaks)
3.) Get past the idea that everybody must go to college
Each of these has wide ramifications that you can imagine if you think about them. But you needn’t, for McWhorter gives the rationales in detail. Sadly, none of these things are being emphasized or accomplished by the Woke, and none of them are the subject of the performative wokeism we encounter every day.
The last chapter deals with people who oppose performative wokeism but still want to help black people. What do you do when the Elect come for you? McWhorter sees acting on his advice as critical, for Electism is no longer a problem with colleges alone. It’s plagues all of American (and much of British and Canadian) society. McWhorter’s suggestion includes not engaging the Elect (they won’t listen), do not apologize for your actions or views if you advance them in reason good faith, and, most important, stand up to the woke. Don’t buy their bullshit, don’t let them make you feel guilty, and, if you disagree, just say so and walk away. And build your own group of like-minded people who are also antiracist.
That, of course, requires that you “out yourself” as an opponent of the Elect. I have already done so, but what do I have to lose? I don’t use Twitter, I have my own platform here, and I’m retired. Nobody can fire me. But there are many who do have things to lose. McWhorter’s advice is to stand up for your principles, even if you suffer by doing so. Just as atheists did, the more one “comes out”, the more heartened your ideological confrères become, and the more likely they’ll be to join you. The Elect, of course, will deem you a racist simply for opposing their mishigass. Don’t let them get away with it.
McWhorter finishes the book by addressing those who agree with his arguments:
The Elect will ever be convinced that if you join these brave, self-possessed survivors, you are, regardless of your color, a moral pervert in bed with white supremacy.
But you aren’t and you know it.
Buy and read this book. Surprisingly, the professional reviews have been good (it even got a star from Kirkus!), and it’s selling quite well. Don’t miss out.
Oh, and let me add that, as you might expect, the book is wonderfully written with simple and stylish prose. But if you’ve read McWhorter before, you’ll expect that. He’s a national treasure, a man whose voice is especially urgent as America tears itself apart over racism.