Monday, 31 October 2016

Good books - October '16

Top billing this month goes to Timothy Garton Ash and his Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. It's enormously well researched (19 pages of bibliography) and amounts to a full-on defence of the right to free speech against the assassin's veto, the heckler's veto, the fundamentalists' veto and indeed the crybully victims' veto as they flee from "trigger alerts" and quiver in their "safe spaces".

As a practical matter it "proposes a framework for civilised conflict in a world where we are all becoming neighbours" (the 'cosmopolis') with 10 principles that I reckon most Kiwis would sign up for, ranging from the bedrock Principle 1 - "We - all human beings - must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers" - through to (say) Principle 8, "We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security". It's a tricky area: even people way down the progressive liberal end of the world can sometimes wonder where any limits should be drawn (cartoons of Mohammed, if likely to lead to deaths?). This book will put you back on the right post-Enlightenment track, where we have a duty to think for ourselves and a right to say what we think. It's rather sad that large parts of the world, including people in the 'West' who should know better, are slipping into - or even embracing - a new Endarkenment.

Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails is an excellent explanation of existentialism. Like many others (including me) she dabbled with it as an angsty teenager, flagged it away, but has now come back to have another look. It's not easily summarisable as a philosophy - the most I'd take away from it is that your big task in life is to be responsible for your own decisions - and it hasn't benefited from a progressively more obscurantist lineage from Husserl through Heidegger to (especially) Sartre. Incidentally, if you'd like to explore some historical context behind the annoying French predilection for complex metaphysics, try Sudhir Hazareesingh's How the French Think : An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.

There are good portraits of the leading personalities. Bakewell makes a good case that Simone de Beauvoir may prove to have the greatest legacy, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty comes out well, too. I tried to buy into her appreciation of Sartre, but I couldn't get there: for me his fiction remains as unreadable as his prose, and I wouldn't swap Boris Vian's little Froth on the Daydream (let alone anything by Albert Camus) for all Sartre's output. Heidegger's reputation has been, probably irreparably, damaged by his enthusiasm (never retracted) for Nazism, but that wasn't all that was wrong with him. The book has the story of how Heidegger arranged, when a poet was visiting him, for the local bookstores to have the poet's works displayed in their windows. Nice gesture, but as Bakewell acidly observes (pp304-5), "it is the only documented example I have come across of Heidegger actually doing something nice".

Bakewell's got a good line going in explaining philosophy to the intelligent reader: if you like At the Existentialist Café, have a go at her earlier How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.

Joseph Lelyveld's His Final Battle: The last months of Franklin Roosevelt covers the last year or so of FDR's life. It doesn't add a huge amount to the big picture of what we already know about him: probably the most effective politician of the twentieth century, with an unrivalled mastery of political strategy and tactics, and a most remarkable capacity for cunning and artifice. But it does flesh out a lot of the detail of his last year. How times have changed: even in the middle of World War Two, Roosevelt was able to clear off for weeks at a time from the White House (and without letting the public know where he actually was); press briefings were off the record; air travel was primitive; and his doctors were able to cheerfully and repeatedly lie through their teeth about his precarious health and get away with it. Physically, over that last year, he wasn't up to the demands of the office, and there's a good case that the strain of keeping going killed him, though his health was so poor that even the lower demands of a peacetime presidency might also have carried him off. That said, Roosevelt half-dead was twice the calibre of most of his successors.

I like to browse the 'Just returned' shelves at the library - you probably do too - which is where I found John Hornor Jacobs' The Incorruptibles. It is described by a reviewer on its back cover as "One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is strange alchemy, a recipe I've never seen before", and neither had I, and on that description (which leaves out a soupçon of vampires) you mightn't ever want to. I'm still not entirely convinced it isn't some sophisticated parody of 'quest' tales. But for all of that, it was a rollicking good read. My wife also thought it was very strange,but she got into it, too.

On the go: Angus Deaton's The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality; Richard T Kelly's The Knives (novel set in modern UK politics); Timothy Garton Ash's The File: A Personal History (the file is the one the East German Stasi kept on him); Anthony Gottlieb's The Dream of Enlightenment: the Rise of Modern Philosophy; and Jeffrey Lee's God's Wolf: The Life of the Most Notorious of All Crusaders, Reynald de Chatillon.

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