Review: Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century

Ed note: this review was written years ago for a now defunct livejournal account.

Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century

Mark Sedgwick

I never said I had refined tastes. Anytime a book has got “secret” and “intellectual history” in the subtitle, I am definitely interested. Hell, I’ll even overlook pretty poor writing if the subject matter is worthwhile.

Traditionalism is an interesting idea. Basically it’s a combination of the sort of standard new age idea that all the world’s religions share a single basic kernel of truth coupled with a fascistic hatred for the corruption of the modern capitalistic world and a distrust for the average person. Add in a bunch of masons and western sufis, and it makes for an interesting mix.

As with most of these fringe intellectual movements, there’s a kernel of truth in their somewhere (indeed fairly mainstream thinkers like Huston Smith could be aligned with teh movement). But, as is often the case, that kernel is deeply buried under horrific politics (Julius Evola, a writer some closely aligned with the movement has been a major figure in post-war fascism) and bad personal behavior (you get the whiff of personality cults surrounding a number of the major players here).

All in all, its an interesting if ill defined movement. And this is an interesting read — if out-there intellectual movements are your thing. They’re definitely my thing and I enjoyed it. That said, it need to be noted that the writing is pretty poor. Sedwick identifies far to many people as “pivotal to the history of traditionalist thought” and way to many ideas are “key”.

Paragraphs tend to wander and the point can sometime be hard to pull out. However, as anyone who read much on a fringes knows, poor writing is the price we often pay for coverage of the murkier edges of intellectual life.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Lewis’s The Money Culture

The Money Culture
Michael Lewis

I love me some Michael Lewis, and I have confessed here before a pleasure in the business tell all book. Michael Lewis wrote one of the genre, Liar’s Poker. This collection of pieces written right before and after Liar’s Poker is all right, but not his best work.

I have a high tolerance for bad writing if I am interested in the subject manner, but even I had a hard time getting through some of the early pieces in here about the excesses of Wall Street or the inherent stupidity of American Express. Perhaps Lewis had to get all this poor sophomoric writing out of his system before he could write decent sophomoric books. If Money Culture is what it takes to get to Moneyball, so be it.

Don’t bother with this one, read Liar’s Poker and his book on baseball Moneyball. They won’t change your life or deeply inform how you relate to the world, but they are more worthy of your time.

Not Recommended. 

Review: Turow’s One L

Ed. Note: This review was written for a now defunct livejournal account while I was in my first year of law school.

One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School
Scott Turow

Before I started law school, I was repeatedly told to buy this book by bestselling mystery author Turow’s on his first year at Harvard. I was told to read it read it “if for no other reason than everyone else there will have read it”.

Well, I’m one week into law school, and no one has mentioned it, thanks.

Still, it wasn’t a totally waste of time. Reading how horrific Turow’s professors were to him steeled me for my first day of class. I was totally ready for someone to cry. No one did. I was almost disappointed at how nice all my professors are, then I came to my senses and was just fucking relieved.

Turow’s writing is punchy and enjoyable, and the book goes down easy. I think I finished it in about two days. You can see why he left the law to be a full time writer, and his horror stories are amusing and cautionary. I don’t know if I would have taken my first weeks as seriously as I have if Turow hadn’t put the love the god in me.

Recommended for those attending law school. If you don’t read it, you’ll never get a job or relate to you fellow students.

Review: Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life

Ed note: this review was written for a now defunct livejournal sometime in 2007.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

Volume I
Fernand Braudel
The Phoenix Press Reissue (563 pages)

The first volume of Braudel’s massive work on the construction of capitalism in the 15th to 18th century sets the stage for all that is to come. It is an exhaustive survey of the social and economics conditions in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world at the beginning of the 15th century.

The amount of primary research that went into this is mind boggling. Everything you ever wanted to know about how much livestock the average farmer in Batvia had to the trends in fashion in the courts of Europe is covered here in great detail.

Braudel is all over the place in these books, chasing every detail and argument to their end, and it can be difficult to grasp the important threads running through the work. In the first volume this isn’t as much of an issue as it becomes in volumes two and three. Braudel is still all over the place, but since he is really only setting the stage, it isn’t as important to try and pick up his overall theory. Volume Two is where he really lays out his argument for the separation of capitalism and the market and why certain places in Europe became economic power houses and others didn’t.*

As in volume two, Braudel is at his best when he’s discussing Europe, and is out of his depth when he deals with the rest of the world. There is a trove of good information in this first volume however, and I would recommend it to the academics out there if only because at some point you may need to be able to speak on the Dutch economy in 1500 or the clothes worn in England by the aristocracy in 1600 and this is the place to get all that good info.

* This is also an idea that he returns to in extreme detail in volume three, which I am about a quarter done with and find…kind of ehh, actually.

Review: Bruadel’s The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th – 18th Century Volume 2

Ed note: this review was written in 2007, while I was in my first year of law school, for a now long defunct livejournal account I had.

The Wheels of Commerce (Civilization and Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century -Volume 2)

Fernand Braudel

The Phonix Press Reissue, 601 pages

(Originally published in France as Les Jeux de l’Exchange, 1979)

After a somewhat tedious first volume, where Braudel sets the stage for life and commerce in the period under discussion, Volume two of Civilization and Capitalism really gets the ball rolling. Or as much as anything ever gets rolling in a Braudel book.

The economics of everyday life can be fascinating stuff, but it is not easy going. The language is straight forward, but Braudel wanders around his subject, giving us mountains of specifics and following various side currents to their ends. The basic point of the volume is to outline, first the difference between the market and capitalism, and then to trace the creation of capitalism in the markets centers of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Unlike many historian of this period, Braudel is more concerned with the world of finance than the world of production, which I find fascinating and very useful for thinking about the role of finance in the economy today. If you care to know how the financiers of Amsterdam dealt with getting a ship in the ocean and bound for America or India, this is the place to look.

While Braudel is not an economic determinist, economics is at the center of this book. Unlike many other economic historians, Braudel does take the time to deal with how culture (there a section on fashion in the first volume!) religion and other factors play into the shaping of an economic and social system. This makes for a deeply convincing argument when he demolishes Weber’s idea of the protestant work ethic, but is less informed or convincing (and sometimes borderline racist) when he is dealing with non-western cultures.

I appreciate that Braudel didn’t assume that by “civilization and capitalism” one can only mean Western Europe, but his sections on the rest of the world I found lacking. They did not have the erudition he exhibits when taking about Western Europe.

The Book fascinating, but I think Braudel could have done with some editing. This book is not going to lay out point by point the creation of capitalism for you. You’ll need to discover the steps through the examples Braudel gives. It’s a riveting if you’re an econ and history nerd but complicated and meandering work that could have used a co-author (or a better team of research assistants) to handle the non western areas he covers and an editor to tease out the string of the creation of capitalism that subtly floats through this work.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

Review: Martin’s A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2)
A Song of Fire and Ice Series Book 2
George R.R. Martin
Spectra Reissue, 704 pages

The second volume in Martin’s massive series of books about conquest and intrigue in his imaginary world of Westeros is even more of a soap opera than the first volume. More dialogue and less battle set pieces. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. There’s still plenty of blood and violence, but more than anything else, more machinations for power among the main characters while the poor of the lands suffer horribly.

It’s a dark piece of work, possibly darker than the first volume, yet no less as captivating.

I wonder what kind of academic work has been done on the appeal of fantasy novels. While getting into a series like this is, of course, escapist, it’s a specific type of escapist appeal. The plot pulls you along and the pages go by very quickly, but this is isn’t a happy world gnomes where the princess is saved. Here, no one is saved. Martin’s books are extremely dark. His strong female characters are often subject to horrific violence, and his heroes are rarely true heroes. Those who are heroic often end up dead. It’s all very pessimistic. Our heroes are killed regularly and the ones with the most intellectual skill and the least moral compunctions are the ones who (so far) do the best.

What does it say about me that I enjoy this sort of thing? That I choose to escape into a world of violence and machinations where the more conniving characters are the ones who do the best?

Probably nothing good.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

Review: Coates’s Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates

How does one review a book like Between You a Me? Especially when one is me – an educated, white, straight, middle class dude.

What can I possibly say?

I can say that it deeply affected me.

That even now, over a week after finishing the book, it is still at the front of my mind. I can say how visceral and immediate the writing is, even when it is repetitive, in fact, perhaps most when it is repetitive. I can say how I’ve struggled all week with Coates recollections of his father’s beatings. Struggled specifically with the phrase “I beat him or the police”. I can say that the recollections of the casual humiliation Coates suffered repeatedly, here in my own beloved city, brought me to tears.

I can say that you really have to read this book.

Coates is almost my exact contemporary. Our cultural references are all the same. The same hip hop groups, the same games, the same football players. But our lives could not have been more different. My father never felt he had to beat me to protect me from a world out to kill me and I will (almost surely) never have to worry about my son being murdered by the state because of the color of his skin.

The book, as you probably know is written as a letter to Coates’s son. In that letter are many things – stories of Coates’s youth, praise for his son’s mother, ruminations on education and life, but mainly it’s a warning that no matter your privilege, education, or opportunity, if you’re a black man in America the state can kill you with impunity. That’s can be a hard thing to read, especially when it is put as bluntly as Coates puts it in this book.

It is also inarguably true.

Some have criticized this book for lacking hope, or for failing to provide an answer to racist nightmare that is America. But providing hope, or answers, isn’t Coates job. I’m not even sure he believes there is an answer, or a hope. Demanding Coates provide us with a happy ending really misses the point of the book.

This book isn’t a prescription for change – it’s a warning about reality.

Recommended.

Some Quick Thoughts on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

You know those books where you start reading and there, in the very first pages, is a phrase you just have to underline or copy out? It’s so perfectly done, you need to honor it. But then you keep reading, and just a page later, there’s another perfect sentence. And then another. Now you’re underlying something on every page. But you’re no longer a young man. You don’t have time to underline the whole goddamn book. So you give up on the underlining because this thing is just so goddamn well done there’s no point in highlighting just a section or two.

You know those kind of books? Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books. It is an extended mediation on nature as seen through Dillard experience living in semi-rural Virginia and it is awesome. Usually, meditations on nature aren’t my thing, but this one was so gorgeously written* that I couldn’t resist. Here’s a good bit:

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.

That’s pretty good, right? I think that’s pretty good.

The prose of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blew me away, and the subject matter (reflections on nature, and man’s relationship thereto, basically) got me thinking.

As we (and by we I guess I really mean I) become a more and more an industrialized creature, it seems we idealize the natural world and its wonders more. In my Brooklyn apartment, I find myself watching nature documentaries and dreaming of running courses deep in the mountains. I read about Dillard witnesses a flood at Tinker Creek and I’m a bit jealous.

Of course, there is a reason for this. The natural world is wondrous (Dillard has a passage about the praying mantis that will just blow you mind) and our fantasies of it can be a soothing balm after a long commute home from the office on an overcrowded four train.

But nature is also, to me, and many others, incredibly foreign.  Living near a creek in the woods is something reserved for those with second homes and the shrinking populace of the rural poor. Everyone else is crammed into cities and cul de sacs where we witness not the wonders of the ingenious muskrat (another awesome Dillard vignette), but the feats and foibles of our fellow men. And these things too can be as fascinating and horrifying as the mating of a praying mantis. Isn’t this worth some exploration as well?

Can’t we learn something from close observation of the man made world around us?

I think so. I think I might try.

*Some might say this one was overwritten, and I see there point. There were times when I thought, “Oh stop it, Annie, you’re just showing off”.  In her afterword Dillard basically admits this — that’s Pilgrim is the book of a young person determined to show her chops.  That she does. This woman can write.

Digging in the Stacks: False Nationalism / False Internationalism

This is the first post in an occasional series I’ll be doing called Digging in the Stacks. I’ll write about books I find fascinating.  This piece was originally written for another website I used to manage.  

False Nationalism False Internationalism (herein after“FNFI”) by E Tani and Kae Sera is a cult classic of the American hard left. Originally published in the mid 1980s, my edition is spiral bound and looks like it was printed from a photocopy of the original. The published is something called “Seeds Beneath the Snow”. I have been told the book was never issued perfect bound, but like most things I know about FNFI, I cannot confirm that for a fact. What follows is what I’ve been able to cobbled together about the book and its authors. Some of this might be wrong, or only part of the story. If you know more, get in touch as miloandthecalf at gmail

This is what my copy looks like.

Some sources claim FNFI is part of a trilogy of books which attempted to lay out a revolutionary critique of the West. All the books were written pseudonymously, whether by one author, two authors or a collective, I do not know. The other two books in the series are the better known (in certain circles) Settlers: The Myth of the White Proletariat by  J. Sakai and Night Vision by Butch Lee and Red Rover.

Settlers has been a very important book in certain anti-racist circles. It posits that the white working class in America has always been a reactionary force and that if revolution is to come to the U.S. it will come from oppressed communities of color. The book is incendiary and polemical, but fascinating throughout. My edition also really takes the cake for loony 1970s leftist illustrations – the back cover is a picture of Ho Chi Minh dancing with children.

I’ve never read Night Vision, but I own it. From breezing through it, it looks to be a collection of moaist inspired anti-imperialist writings, but more than that, I can’t say.

FNFI on the other hand, I did read, with interest, many years ago when I was still a young man interested in these sort of things. Addressing the wars and conflicts of the 1960s and 70s from the vantage point of First World communists enraptured by Third World leaders, FNFI is terribly dated and naïve. It is still a good read. If you can overlook the jargon and Third World Marxist speech, the writing and research are surprisingly strong. Within its pages you get a nuanced critique of the actions of the Weather Underground (violence ok, the violence of the Weather Underground, childish), and a fascinating argument that the Vietnam war was ended not by demonstrations in America, but because of violent sabotage by soldiers in Vietnam.

FNFI is still read today by idealistic young communists and anarchist for its hardline approach to American imperialism and its comfort with violence as a tool for social change. If you have an interest in the philosophy of the farthest reaches of left wing ideologues in the 1970s and 80s, and, let’s face it, who doesn’t, this is worth checking out.

False Nationalism isn’t hard to find, if you know where to look. Finding out anything about its authors is much more difficult. You are never going to believe this, but I am pretty sure “E Tani” and “Kae Sera” are pseudonyms. All three books in the series use of pseudonyms for the authors.  Settlers is credited to a “J. Sakai” and that pseudonym has since been used for a number of other writings. The author behind it has also given interviews where he identifies as Asian and talks about working in various blue collar union jobs. Beyond that, I know nothing. Was Sakai was also involved in the writing of FNFI? Were E. Tani and Kae Sera were really two different people? Is there any connection between them and Butch Lee and Red Rover? I have heard a number of conjectures and rumors about FNFI including that it, and the others in the cycle, were written collectively by the same small group of friends, that the authors had been involved in Weather Underground, and that some, or all, of authors now reside in New York. I have no idea if any of that is true. I’d sure like to find out. If you know anything about this book, or its authors, please get in touch.

Book Review: Five Days At Memorial

We all remember Katrina. The natural disaster of the hurricane, and the piss-poor response from local, state and federal agencies in its aftermath, remains one of the low points of modern America. Like many, I was shocked, and ashamed, that anyone had to live through something so awful. And I was angry that so many had to struggle so hard, for so long, without adequate assistance.

Many, I am sure, are still struggling today.

But I live far from New Orleans. And with time, Katrina faded from my memory.

That is, until I read Sheri Fink’s 5 Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital. * If you followed the Katrina news, you probably remember at least the broad strokes of what happened at Memorial – during the immediate aftermath of the storm, with floodwater surrounding the hospital, and evacuation happening in a haphazard and unpredictable way, a number of staff people allegedly euthanized patients.

Memorial Medical Center, surrounded by flood waters.

However if you’re like me, you only remember the barest outline of the story and know little of what happened to the people involved after CNN stopped carrying it on the evening news.

Well the full story is here and it is a tragic and disturbing.  Fink recounts  it in detail, giving us an almost moment-by-moment account of what happened in Memorial during the storm and of the investigation that happened after. By and large it’s a nuanced presentation of complex situation. No one comes off as an obvious villain and few remain virtuous.

Boats evacuating staff and patients from Memorial. These boats were most likely part of the flotilla of volunteers who reached Memorial days after the storm.

It’s  creates a haunting book full of the kind of moral challenges I don’t normally get in my reading. You should check it out. Though the story of Katrina is familiar, I was still shocked by the chaos of the situation and troubled by the decisions made throughout the storm by the government, hospital management, and the health care providers. We want everyone to be perfect, to always make the right call, but they don’t.  And it is clear from the first moments of the storm that this group of people, at this hospital, were woefully unprepared for what was to come.

I wish different decisions had been made at Memorial (and I am not just talking about the alleged euthanasia). I’m sure some of those who were there do as well. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and perhaps, as one of the doctors under investigation argued, you cannot judge what happened unless you were there.

There is some validity to this argument. Yet isn’t judging situations in which we were not involved exactly what we ask our juries to do everyday? At the heart of every trial is the weighing of evidence and the delivery of a verdict of guilt or innocence by people who were, by necessity, not there.

Are there situations too extreme for our society to judge by its normal standards? Was Katrina one of them? I finished the book with no answers. And I’m still wrestling with the questions, bringing it up at every dinner party and group run I attend. Its not something many people want to discuss, but I can’t stop thinking about it.  And that is as strong an endorsement as I can give any book.