White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

Do Your Job – a plea from Demosthenes

Demosthenes is an interesting ancient orator to read. On the one hand, his speeches are good (an understatement; he has been the gold standard for political oratory for thousands of years), but, on the other, he is a bit of a one-trick pony. Demosthenes made his career in Athens opposing the rising power of Philip of Macedon, forcefully and repeatedly denouncing the king and challenging his fellow citizens to do something, anything. These speeches continue for a bit over a decade, and culminate in one final crushing defeat of the combined armies of Athens and Thebes.

Preparing for yesterday’s class, I had an opportunity to reread the first of these injunctions, Demosthenes’ First Philippic of 351 BCE. Some of the speech is given over to explaining why people should listen to him (people ought to pardon his youth because older people aren’t getting the job done, 4.1) and a specific proposal for military defense that gets into the weeds of fourth century Athenian fiscal management, but a large portion is dedicated to haranguing his peers for their complacency. Their inaction, explained as a combination of specific Athenian failings and the fact that democracies are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to fighting wars, has put the state at risk.

Above all, though, Demosthenes blames his peers of putting their own comfort and self-interest above the needs of the state. He does not blame anyone of being in the pay of an enemy agent; those accusations come later. There are issues with how Demosthenes makes his case, but reading the speech in 2018 it is hard not to sympathize with him. He just wants Athenian politicians to do their jobs.

Even if something should happen to that one, you would quickly make a new Philip attending to the matter this way. That man has not grown strong out of his own resources, but our negligence. (4.11)

Should we remain sitting at home, listening while speakers accuse and abuse one another, then we will never accomplish that which needs to be done. (4.44)

It is not necessary to consider what could happen, but to know that our future will be a sorry state unless you attend to affairs by being willing to do what needs to be done. (4.5)

καὶ γὰρ ἂν οὗτός τι πάθῃ, ταχέως ὑμεῖς ἕτερον Φίλιππον ποιἠσετε ἄωπερ οὗτω προσέχητε τοῖς πράγμασι τὸν νοῦν: οὐδὲ γὰρ οὗτος παρὰ τὴν αὑτοῦ ῥώμην τοσοῦτον ἐπηύξηται ὅσον παρὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν ἀμέλειαν. (4.11)

ἂν μέντοι καθώμεθ᾽ οἴκοι, λοιδορουμένων ἀκούοντες καὶ αἰτιωμένων ἀλλήλους τῶν λεγόντων, οὐδέποτ᾽ οὐδὲν ἡμῖν γένηται τῶν δεόντων. (4.44)

οὐ γὰρ ἅττα ποτ᾽ ἔσται δεῖ σκοπεῖν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι φαῦλα, ἂν μὴ προσέχητε τὸν νοῦν καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα ποιεῖν ἐθέλητε, εὖ εἰδέναι. (4.50)

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

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Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

My #content, or where to find me

One of my goals for this year once I am done with my degree is to try to put myself out there, writing more widely, on more topics, and for more outlets. Right now, however, my #content is primarily reserved for offline consumption (i.e. written to achieve my degree or for conferences), submitted to academic publishers, or hosted on my own platforms such as this blog or Twitter. It has been a little while since I have taken stock of where I can be found online, so here is a rundown:

Twitter jpnudell

Twitter is my primary vehicle for social media and has been for a number of years. I use the platform for collecting news, jokes, baby animal pictures, and scholarship, roughly in that order. After spiking briefly last spring when I was one of a small group of people tweeting from an academic conference, my usage rate has dropped back down again. Naturally, my most-seen tweet from January encapsulates my current opinion about the site:

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I go through periodic crises about my usage on the site, anxieties that have only been heightened in the new year of protests and impending joblessness and lack of departmental affiliation. I want to tweet more and to tweet thoughts about books and refugees and scholarship, but, at the same time, I am racing against several different countdown clocks in terms of writing deadlines and the need for a job and the perpetual outrage online makes it impossible for me to complete those projects to my satisfaction. I have things I want to say, but one of the things I am struggling with is what I want my Twitter account to be for. I have some ideas, but most of them require more time, something I don’t have for at least the next few months.

Instagram jpnudell

The most recent addition to my social media presence, I have started using this account more frequently since getting a smartphone. Mostly, I document my baking projects, books I’m reading, and cats, along with assorted photos of trips and the like. I don’t have much of an agenda or plan for this account, but have been using it as an excuse to take more pictures and work on better use of hashtags.

G+ Joshua Nudell – Status: inactive

Since I use Google extensively, it should not be a surprise that I have a G+ account. If I recall correctly, I once tried to use G+ as a Facebook replacement, but didn’t find the service either as useful or as addictive as Facebook, so I have left the page fallow.

Facebook Status: 404 Error Page not Found.

I deleted my Facebook account in 2012, announcing it in a post where I declared that Facebook failed. I should amend this statement. I was commenting on Zuckerberg’s stated purpose of bringing the world together by getting people to live in a fishbowl, but, ultimately, that isn’t Facebook’s goal. Facebook has been unbelievably successful in getting people to turn to it as a standard place to write, communicate, organize events, and post information and pictures. It is an addictive ecosystem that makes it particularly easy for other people in the system to use while being annoying for those on the outside. For all of that, I also believe that my life is significantly better for not having an account.

Ello jpnu

I do this thing where I try out almost every social media site when it comes out, at least for a little while. Most of these I let fall dormant if I don’t find something compelling to keep me coming back to them. Ello has an eclectic group of people posting things, but I tend to be more literary and less visual in my posts and without feeling like I had an audience at least somewhat built in, I never really used this site. Writing this post was the first time in about a year that I have even logged into my account.

Academia.edu Joshua Nudell

The calls for academics dropping their academia.edu accounts have been growing louder in recent months, most notably in an essay penned by Sarah Bond. I haven’t followed suit just yet, but neither do I really use this site. (In fact, my main interaction with it lately was for an editor to tell me that I had to delete information from it in order to have my work considered because it interfered with anonymous peer review.) I have found this site useful for finding some information in the past, but mostly in terms of stalking people rather than genuine interaction and I am wholly opposed to the site’s catering to analytics and then playing gatekeeper for who gets to have the greatest impact. It is an extortionate practice and while I am going to keep my presence on Academia.edu for the time being, I think it is a matter of when, not if, I delete this account.

Humanities Commons jpnudell

Humanities Commons is a site started as an open-access alternative for Academia.edu, hosted by the MLA. I registered for an account as soon as I found out about it, but have only recently begun migrating my information and documents over and thus have not spent much time on it. My impression thus far is that it has a much smaller footprint than Academia.edu, at least in the field of history, but that I prefer its interface and ideology.

Blanket Effects

I have been busy recently, trying to finish my dissertation, teaching, and generally trying to get my future in order so that I can keep writing about things that I enjoy and that matter to me. Despite my generally hectic schedule recently, I have been mulling a post that was to begin:

I am not a patient person, which makes it all the more ironic that I don’t just plan meals out days in advance, but actually plan meals that require me to start making them days in advance.

Or something like that. The first clause, at any rate, was going to begin this way. This was meant to be a clever and thoughtful interweaving of the fact that I don’t stand in line for many things, thoughts about my faults as a student and theories as an educator, and that I spent last week carefully tending to Thing One, my sourdough starter, which is now bubbling merrily away in my fridge. (I am exceedingly proud of Thing One, not least because it makes me feel like a mad scientist.) I will probably still write this post, perhaps even tomorrow, but I spent much of today reading about the fallout from President Trump’s executive order that put a moratorium on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Citizens of these countries, people who have already been “extremely vetted” over the course of years and cleared to enter the United States, people who frequently risked their lives to help US military personnel or who are at risk because their family members did so, people who are fleeing persecution because of their religious beliefs in their homelands are now being detained in US airports and are at risk of being deported to countries where their lives will be threatened. In light of this, my glib remark about not being patient just seemed wrong.

This post’s original title was “Reflections on Leviathan” since reading these stories both filled me with a sense of dread appropriate for a world-destroying dragon or great sea monster, and a sense of impotence since I am not in a particular position of power or wealth and have therefore been reflecting on how the Hobbesian tradition can be inverted such that the state can oppress those most in need of protection. In fact, this sort of action is exactly what I was alluding to when I was writing up my thoughts about Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. These are not happy thoughts that have been steeping in my mind today and I am only somewhat mollified by the actions of people and institutions more able to respond because they are nevertheless peppered with further reports about deafening silences from others.

Instead, this post remains thoroughly meta. It is full of “was going to,” “was, and “meant to,” because I am going to wrap it up briefly in order to begin composing yet another letter to my congresspeople. I don’t yet know what I am going to say, but this time I am going to also post it online because these issues are too important to remain quiet about.

(And, no, I am not ignoring the other civil rights abuses, the pillaging of the environment and consumer and labor protections for a handful of temporary jobs. These are equally important, but I am choosing to raise my voice here I am a historian whose research focuses on one of the main corridors for Middle Eastern refugees fleeing to Europe.)

There is one more closing thought for today, which is the inspiration for the title and is related to the issue of nuance that I have written about before.

I played a lot of Magic the Gathering as a teenager. Magic, for the uninitiated, is a collectible card game where each player has a deck composed of cards from one or more of the five colors. The colors are fairly cliché: white is purity and good, black is evil or necromancy, red is chaos and fire, green is nature, blue is magic and water. In the broadest context, each player was a mage and the deck represented his or her forces. The objective of the game was to use your deck to beat the other player into submission using spells and creatures, so it was frequently necessary to eliminate the other player’s creatures. Some creatures, however, were immune to spells of a particular color or, even better immune to being targeted at all, because of their unique abilities. There were ways to deal with these pesky creatures that, in terms of game mechanics, did not require “targeting” the card. One, my favorite, was to mandate that a player had to sacrifice a creature, which meant that I was no longer the one doing the targeting. A second, more common, mechanic was cards that were “blanket effects” that targeted every creature in play, thereby circumventing the individual creature’s protection. This mechanic had its downsides, though, namely that friendly creatures were also affected by the spell. The tradeoff for being able to hit that one threatening creature was to adverse affect the whole board.

One might counter that the ominously-named spell “Wrath of God” is best deployed when the flood of enemy creatures is too great and it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. This is true from the perspective of the game, but Magic the Gathering is a closed system–a duel where creatures are a finite supply of cards drawn from a deck. Outside of such a closed system, blanket effects are almost always disastrously naive.

I firmly believe that while it is important to screen immigrants, the United States should be taking in more, not fewer refugees. I believe that living in a more just, tolerant, and open world would be a boon for all human beings. And I also believe that the immigration ban is extremely myopic, not just because it will contribute to anti-American sentiment and increasing isolationism, not just because it will bar me from visiting the places I have wanted to go since I was a small boy, and not just because it is a violation of civil liberties of residents of this country, though is for all of those reasons. I believe this ban is myopic because it is emblematic of a much deeper problem, revealing an utterly uncurious way of looking at the world. A perspective that treats everyone from the Middle East as muslim and every muslim as of one type, with no appreciation for history. This problem is not exclusive to the United States, but, at the moment, it feels uniquely American.

Scrivener Chronicles: Day 1

One of my recent obsessions has been word-processing software. I have long had issues with Microsoft Word, particularly when trying to work with long documents consisting of multiple sections. For this reason, I have almost twenty different word documents that comprise the bulk of my dissertation. I would prefer to have an easily organized file that I could manipulate as a whole, but, for the time being it was easier to treat each chapter or section as a distinct entity. This came to a head recently when I was trying to work with my least favorite feature of Word, namely tables. One of my chapters needs to have five or six tables (give or take, since the total depends on how many sections the three main tables need to be broken into to fit on the page), but Word was making a wretched mess just formatting them on the page, let alone fitting them into the flow of text. So I set that chapter aside and worked on other things for a while, but also started looking around for something that might suit my purposes better than a program that I have larger, philosophical grievances with.

After looking about, I decided that Scrivener might be the best option, and it even has an extended free trial, so I spent most of today editing a chapter to familiarize myself with the program. While there are some aspects that I don’t find intuitive, but, by and large I like the interface for working. My initial reaction was that I didn’t like the references feature because, instead of defaulting to footnotes, it has a separate column for them that is not dropped into a numbered list until the document is compiled. On the one hand, I find this clumsy to visualize which reference belongs with which point on the page, but this is mitigated by having the references serve as a bookmark that is linked to the place on the text it belongs. After one day I don’t like the references feature better than good ol’ footnotes, but neither do I like it worse–each as their place.

My favorite part of Scrivener is its use as a project manager that allows sections and subsections to be visualized individually or together. But that is just the beginning. It also has a “cork-board” mode that offers for each section a notecard. While one tutorial I watched used these for a summary, I think they are ideal for a thesis. Admittedly, having a clear thesis is one of my weaknesses as a writer, but this feature offered a built-in way to clarify each section.

And yet, after one day, I am on the fence about the software, because of how it hands footnotes and fonts in the process of compilation. [Note: Scrivener is a drafting application that says in its manual that it does not handle the typesetting of references. I understand this, and am listing reasons why it may not be ideal for my purposes.] Scrivener is designed such that when it is time to submit or finish or print a project, you compile the sections you want to include and send it off, to print, pdf, Word, or a variety of other formats. However, the references (which are called footnotes in Scrivener) frequently default to endnotes, particularly if directly exporting to a .pdf file. I understand the reasons behind this, but am philosophically averse to endnotes. The second problem with compilation and Scrivener as a drafting application rather than a typesetting one is that it seems to have a default font system that it applies when compiling…which is problematic when my chapters have quotations that require a Greek font. This then brings me back to the tables that caused me to close out Word in disgust. In Scrivener, the tables look nice and are more easily integrated into the flow of the text, but the tables become again mucked up when compiled because it is a drafting tool and though that eliminates some of my difficulties, the larger ones were typeset problems that again rear their ugly heads upon compilation.

At the end of the first day, I like Scrivener, but I like the idea of Scrivener more than I like the program. I may end up purchasing the program yet, whether because I acclimate and find solutions to my difficulties, or because (as I suspect) it legitimately helps with certain aspects of writing, my first inclination is to say that Word is better for my particular purposes at this juncture. Either way I am going to have to wrestle with certain aspects of the system.

If anyone has their own experiences with Scrivener and/or suggestions for my particular issues, please share.

Live Tweet Demons

The third installment of tweets from novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s #Demons.

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Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life.

Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk

Two things happen to the narrator of The New Life, one after the other, which changed everything: he read a book and he fell in love with a girl. In his accounting of events, the reading of the book was both the first and the more important occurrence, but, really, he only read the book because he saw a pretty girl reading and was smitten. One might even say that our protagonist was entrapped by this distant and unapproachable beauty. This book changed everything and, he is told, those under its sway are wrapped up in a long-standing conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that could cost them their lives. Following Janan, he witnesses the assassination of her beloved and is immediately launched into a journey across Anatolia in pursuit of Janan, in search of answers to the riddles posed by the book, and hunting for a new life.

Most of The New Life takes place on dimly-lit bus-stops and on darkened buses that roar across the Anatolian landscape past–and sometimes into–similarly nondescript vehicles. Each bus seems to take people further back in time. Bloody crashes are a frequent occurrence, and sometimes provide an opportunity to adopt a new persona. The narrator’s obsession with Janan is Quixotic and while his pursuit of the woman sitting beside him spurs him on as a young man, the book proves a somewhat more intimate and more fruitful quest. The principle question is how one is able to reach equilibrium between the promises of the book and a changing world. There is no single right answer.

Pamuk eventually reveals that the name of the book is The New Life, and there is reason to suspect that it is the same as the novel, but for most of the story it is simply referred to as “the book” and its contents are left ambiguous. The closest comparison I could think of is the fanatical devotion inspired by religious texts, but it is emphatically a secular, subversive book. Similarly, there is an ambiguity as to what, exactly, The New Life is. Does it refer to swapping identity papers? Claiming a new name? Revolution? The process of aging? Or is the life in question not the life of the individual at all, but the life of a culture or country? Ought the new life really be an old life? Or is there another transcendence above these all? In the end, The New Life is being told from the point of view of an adult man, married and with a daughter. He has certainly found a new life, but, somehow, it hasn’t totally satisfied the hunger that the book awoke.

The New Life is an early example of Pamuk’s work and while I enjoyed the book, it is lower on the scale of his novels, ahead of only The White Castle. On the one hand, there were features that were engaging, including the two discussed in the previous paragraph, the tension between bus and rail, and the appearance of going back in time and the speedy onset of western modernity; on the other, there were aspects of the conspiracies that left me hollow because they fit in the novel but were not fleshed out. Some of this is a stylistic choice and some is the narrative style, but I wanted it to be spun out further as Pamuk does in later novels.

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I recently decided that I want to prune my book collection somewhat by donating books I don’t actively want to keep around to charitable book drops and/or libraries and have already chosen six or seven volumes to give away. I am militantly against getting rid of my entire physical collection despite the hassle of moving boxes of books, so this is more about culling for space. Along the same lines, I want to be able to talk about every book in my collection either because I have read it or because it is a new acquisition and soon to be read. As such, there is somewhat of a backlog that I need to read, some of which I started once upon a time and gave up on, others I bought and never read. Right now I am read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which falls into the former category, and which I am enjoying quite a lot and thus wondering why I stopped reading it before (other that I am finding myself a more patient and careful reader as I age).

Foundation and Alexander

My single favorite observation about Alexander the Great and his empire is attributed to Joseph Stalin, in a series of articles published in Pravda in 1950 called “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” In this, he answers a series of questions about language, its relationship to marxism (e.g. “is language a superstructure?”), whether language is inherently “class language” whether this changes if a society possesses multiple languages. Along the way, Stalin notes that empires of the “slave and midiaeval” eras, including Alexander’s was a “transient and unstable military and administrative association” that was unable to create a solid economic foundation of their own. Stalin expands this observation to apply to all ancient empires, but it particularly suits Alexander’s kingdom, which is sometimes credited with aspiring to form a more unified kingdom through intermarriage, at least among the ruling class, and that quickly disintegrated.

I was reminded of this today as I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation. In this novel, a scientist named Hari Seldon perfects “Psychological History,” which is a way to mathematically predict the history of the future based economics, sociology, and group behavior. The process works best for large groups and when most independent variables can be eliminated. At the outset, Seldon predicts the fall of the millennia-old galactic empire and claims that his method has shown there will be thirty-five thousand years of barbarism, but that this dark age can be reduced to a thousand years if he is allowed to establish an outpost of science and knowledge on the periphery of the galaxy–The Foundation.

The basic narrative is based on the fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes in clever ways, sometimes in somewhat clumsy ones, but Asimov spins out an engaging story over a long extent of time and space, but one passage in particular jumped out:

“Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.”

One of the issues I have with the basic accounts of Alexander’s conquest is that they rely extensively “brilliant heroics.” The sources make this largely unavoidable, and Alexander’s cult of personality is particularly potent. Asimov’s “Psycho-History” doesn’t offer a solution, but I am struck by the juxtaposition and that the exceptional (Alexander) seem to defy the broad trends. Of course there were economic and social currents that made Alexander’s conquest possible, including Philip’s reformation of the Macedonian Kingdom, but the actual conquest will forever be considered at least largely the product of Alexander’s implacable drive.