Friday, August 22, 2008

My Personalized Reading List

I had started to write something else about the Olympics--the blogosphere, of which I make such an indispensible part, was abuzz with various articles describing the rampant sex that starts to break out in the Olympic village towards the end of the games when most people's events are finished, for one thing--but what can one say about it? After all, the original Olympians were naked the whole time? Wish I were there, (or rather had once been there?) The idea of personally indulging in some Olympian love--I think a good German or Canadian girl would have been ideal for me, they seem the most likely to be susceptible to the release of the kind of emotion that I am drawn to at thinking themselves part of a great event--is undoubtedly appealing. That confessed, the idea of being in the midst of a great orgy, particularly one where English and Australian boys are the ones indulging themselves the loudest and most frantically, and without my highly refined romantic sensibility, makes me a bit squeamish. And really, I'm sure whatever sex happens at the Olympics is pretty milquetoast compared to what the serious sex connoisseurs do. My battle-cry has always been "There are some genuinely interesting and beautiful people out there who have milquetoast sex lives," and I still sort of believe it, though I don't think I would be able to say so with composure on television, because when I think about the people I have in mind the idea (that they are either really interesting or beautiful while devoid of compelling sensual qualities, or, that people with compelling sensual qualities could really have milquetoast sex lives) seems preposterous.

So, having gotten that out of the way, I am going to write about a personalized book list I received from Alibris.com (a bookselling service) in a recent e-mail. Unlike the personalized suggestions one gets from Amazon.com or other such sites which obviously correspond to one specific book or other that one has ordered on the site in the past, there was no obvious connection I can think of directly with most of the books on this list.

The first and most curious recommendation was the notorious Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's 1993 tome Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991. I have never read any of this author's work, but he is frequently evoked by conservative pop intellectuals/journalists as a much more than run-of-the-mill bogeyman, almost approaching the Noam Chomsky level. The stuffy and rather mean-spirited (in both senses of the word mean, I think) polemicist and editor of the New Criterion magazine, Roger Kimball--who is on the Board of Visitors and Governors of St John's College--what is his connection?--who appears to spend a considerable proportion of his life in varying degrees of apoplexy aroused by the activities and postures of leftists in positions either of or blessed by authority, evokes the specter of Hobsbawm on a regular basis as one of the most noisome human beings on the planet. Among that segment of the intelligentsia for whom hatred of communism is one of the two or three animating characteristics, Hobsbawm is regarded as absolute scum, practically the equivalent of a Ku Klux Klan member. This was so strongly impressed on me in fact that I was a little surprised both to find an as far as I can tell reputable and dignified firm promoting this book as if it were something completely normal and generally inoffensive, and to me, especially. What did they take me for? Hobsbawm's most frequently-quoted--or at least referred to--statement is his affirmation that 20 or 30 million deaths, perhaps even more, would have been tolerable and justifiable if communism had ultimately emerged triumphant as the normal paradigm on which human society was henceforth to be constructed. This is not a nice idea to express but I am pretty sure we are supposed to understand it in the sense of ideological purpose which sees its potential and actual victims, however wrongly, as legitimate enemies. My point is not that this is good, but that there is little reason to believe that as a practical matter the capitalist/corporate interests (whatever one calls the rich people who run the economy of the modern world) would not consider 20 to 30 million lives an acceptable, even an insignificant price for the preservation of their system, though they probably would not be quite so uncouth as to express themselves thus baldly, to discuss numbers, etc, and, being already ascendant and at the forefront of trends in public relations, would likely be more persuasive in painting and writing off their enemies/victims/challengers as losers, for people have no instinctive sympathy with losers. These generally have to find a way to present themselves, or be presented skillfully, forcefully, and attractively, before any effective indignation and opposition begins to percolate among such as have any ability to contend against the dominant power.

Had I been in circumstances at all propitious for the conversion, I have little doubt that I would have been a communist in the 1930s. Probably not to any extreme point, certainly not to that of moving to the Soviet Union, as apparently thousands of Americans did (and then weren't able to get out again, at least not until the end of the Stalin era, with all the atrocities that came with living in that time and place). I might have been talked into going to the Spanish Civil War if one of the cool people, or especially one of the free-loving, brunette-bobbed, not to be resisted commie girls of the era had personally encouraged me to go. These femmes fatales of the left devoured legions of what might be politely called beta male writerly types (especially Jewish ones, whether in New York, Paris, or the capitals of Central Europe) throughout the era. It is easy to detect in the literature of the time that their radical politics, bohemianism, sexual liberality and desirability must have been absolutely devastating to stammering soft intellectuals. There seems to be nothing equivalent now--I mean there is no political movement where good-looking women will feel an urge to sleep with you as a kind of expression of the cause. Of course many of the writer types, those of a sensitive disposition anyway, fell in love with these women, because they were sexy and had paid them some attention, and wished to be married to them and dreamt of having these women cook and iron and support them in their endeavors for literary immortality in the most conventional bourgeois way. This was not in the proper spirit of the movement. Anthony Powell, for example, staunch Tory he, did not abstain (or at least the narrator in his magnum opus who is basically his stand in) from an adventure in communist free love, getting with the actually somewhat gross Gypsy Jones character in the artist's studio after the funeral of its former occupant; as the narrator only owned having gotten with 3 girls, and that counting his wife, over the course of 3,000 pages covering a time span of 50 years, and this being the only one that would have qualified as a "one-night stand", this leaves me to believe that the occasion, or one similar to it, must have ranked among the high points of this author's life. But I am making a joke of all this, and communism, even when advocated by misguided, ineffectual and insignificant Americans, is not really a proper subject for mirth. If I appear to flirt at times with an affinity for this ideology I assure you it is almost certainly out of pure social desperation, not out of a desire to enshroud the nation, or civilization itself, in a dark age; if a socialist movement existed that really could offer me more intellectual camaraderie, more hints of intrigue, less sheer boredom, a sense of a place in the world more befitting my self-perception, I would be receptive to it the same as anyone else would. That is all.
Another book on the list was Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, which I have read, and remember thinking had much that was humorous in it. It is one of the better 18th century plays, though I actually rather like that category of literature more than most people seem to.

The third book was Carlyle's History of Friedrich II of Prussia. Another doozy. Literary-wise, I was raised on the Victorians, and while I can still think of at least ten of them that I still like a lot because they are superior writers, Carlyle isn't one of them, and overall I have not been in close sympathy with the general Victorian mind in some years.

The last book was an Einstein biography. I erased the message without writing down which one, and of course there are about 50 Einstein biographies. I think this one was from the 70s though. It wasn't the most recent one that was a good seller. Many of the Einstein biographies are good sellers, which indicates to me that they don't require a particularly intensive knowledge of physics, but focus on relationships, rivalries, academic politics, quirky personal habits. My father used to know someone who as a kid had lived on the same block as Einstein in Princeton in the late 40s/early 50s (apparently the greatest mind of the 20th century lived out his days in a suburban neighborhood, though whether this was in a tract house or on a more dignified Victorian-type residential street, I don't know). She didn't have too many titillating stories, other than that the great man was said to forget to do banal things like put socks on before going out of the house, or to eat at regular mealtimes. Of course he was quite old by that time.
I rode in an elevator today with John Sununu, the junior senator from New Hampshire, for whom I have long nurtured an intense dislike (I of course did not mention this to him during the ride; I did not smile either, however). My dislike has lately been tempered by the seeming likelihood that he will not win re-election this fall due to the state's rapidly changing political demographics, but still, his father was the governor and later the chief of staff under the first George Bush, and the family apparently remains popular, though certainly no one I know well and whose judgement I would consider reliable likes him. Both father and son are supposed to be brilliant, super-educated, have stratospheric IQs, etc, though the People are not often treated to a display of this intellect commensurate with the reputation (though to be fair, this is the case with almost all politicans nowadays). During the Republican ascendancy of 2002-04 the senator was most proficient in the condescension and disdain aimed towards anyone skeptical of the Presidential agenda that was favored by the Party in that period, but since both of the state's Republican congressmen were voted out in favor of relative nobodies in 2006 I notice he has toned down this attitude considerably. The senator is of average height, and while he gives off an air of affluence and privilege, he does not have a particularly imposing bearing in person given his position in the government. He looks like a typical moderately succesful 40-something lawyer. I suppose he looked more genuinely intelligent close-up than he comes across on television, and he wasn't smirking, which would have been unbearable. He looked to be going to a meeting with some executives at the place where I work, and I suppose he had the capacity to engage meaningfully at some level with them in this meeting, and they, or at least some of them, had the capacity to engage equally meaningfully with him. I am fascinated by capacity of this sort, for I have so little of it, and yet there seems to be no obvious reason why this should be so utterly so.

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