Jefferson On Hume

Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.

Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810

I Want To Be At That Party

My all time favorite fictional party is the one at Holly Golightly’s apartment in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I read the book, indeed, it is the only Capote novel that I have, as yet, read, but the movie made a more startling and powerful impression on me).

My new second favorite might be the one in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum or, On the Nature of the Gods. Intelligent men having deeply thought-out conversations on ideas passionately held. It’s like one of Plato’s dialogues, but not everyone gets railroaded by Socrates, which, let’s be honest, would probably not be that fun to experience. Just ask Gorgias.

‘Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’ By Cathy Park Hong

I borrowed this from the library (after a reassuringly long wait; people wanted to read it) partly because I like Hong’s poetry and partly because my daughter may experience some of what would be discussed.

First of all, a great book, beautifully, painfully written. Some remarks that delivered some deeply personal pain (some paragraph about how white men date Asian women because they can find Asian women who are much more attractive than the white women who would consider them and how Asian women, because of low self-esteem, will date a white man that no white woman would consider; as a white man with an Asian wife… yikes… but let’s just say, not without truth and move on).

The meditation on the erasure of the violence done to the writer Theresa Has Kyung Cha was devastating, but what I really kept coming back was something not in the book, but relevant.

My better half spoke about wanting me to take our daughter to school and to pick her up and be present whenever possible so that the roost-ruling white children and white families would see her white father and accept her as not being othered by race. Trying to make her safe and accepted by blessing her with my whiteness.

The Decagon House Murders

Despite these Japanese locked room mysteries supposedly being all about the mystery and the clues peppered throughout (a reader should be able to figure it out with the clues provided), with character and psychology being secondary, I noticed the this book and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders have similar characters. The lead ‘detective,’ in the case of Decagon, a man named Shimada, is a whimsical, almost romantic amateur (I need hardly add that I don’t mean ‘romantic’ in anything resembling an erotic sense).

This book ran in two tracks: on the mainland, where some amateur detectives get an idea of a potential mystery; and one an island (with the titular house) where you sort of know that everyone is going to die. While a neat idea, it also didn’t quite work for me. The island scenes were overly dramatic, but in retrospect, only existed to give us the clues we would need, as readers.

Now, I will freely admit that I didn’t figure out the mystery until the author revealed it. And even though I was disappointed, I won’t be afraid to try another Japanese mystery novel.

House On The Borderland

If someone ever said, hey, do you like Lovecraft, because, if so, you should read this, and then you read it, you would say that the aforementioned someone had a point. But only if you were a completist, because it draw a lot from Lovecraft’s more fantasy-like, dream tales.

The opening is a classic Edwardian trope of two well-to-do young men on an outdoorsy trip Ireland who camp and fish near an abandoned garden and find an old manuscript, which they read.

It’s the tale of man in late middle age (who, frankly, seems like he might not be a nice guy; he lives with his sister and I kept feeling sorry for her, without precisely being able to say why) who finds a put opening up near his house. He shoots a monstrous creature who are never explained but are usually explained as being ‘swine-things.’ Canny, they then lay siege to his house before mysteriously quitting the assault. Later, he investigates a tunnel, which seemed like surely the next step is to find an underground civilization, but no, the tunnel floods and he goes home. Where he has a dream (?) where he enters into a crazy cosmic phantasy, like someone decided to reenact Plato’s Timaeus after imbibing some kind of experimental pharmacopeia. And his dog crumbles to dust. And maybe the swine-whatevers come back? And did I mention they trap door to his cellar leading to… a supernatural river, maybe?

It actually was a little scary and, you know what, I’m going to recommend this book.

A Parliamentary Wine

After reading this article, I decided that I had to try a Picpoul de Pinet, which luckily I found a pleasantly inexpensive one at the best little liquor store in Washington, DC (Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, if you must know). Crisp, with lots of minerality, it surprisingly satisfied both me and my better half, who have famously different tastes that make it almost impossible for us to share a bottle.

The Lost World

Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarn falls between the science fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the didacticism of Jules Verne, which is to say, it is an adventure about dinosaurs in the jungles of South America that makes some stabs at following the best science known at the time.

I remember reading this a kid in the kitchen of my Uncle Buddy and Aunt Anna’s house in Atlanta, especially the bit where the protagonist names the lake in the dinosaur-filled plateau, Lake Gladys, after the chilly, would-be fiancée who inspired him (and who subsequently married a clerk while the protagonist was doing feats of derring-do; suffice to say that Doyle has a bit of misogynist streak, not unlike his most famous creation).

What can you say about a book like this? That it’s a ripping good tale. That the racism… could have been worse? That the genocidal attack on a tribe of prehumans feels icky?

You can definitely say that it needed more dinosaurs (a truth which can also be applied to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth).

I had a good time reading it though, all in all. From my father, I inherited a love of British adventure stories and from my childhood a love of dinosaurs. So, something for everyone, I suppose.

Reading Trump Into Camus

I have rejected looking to Camus’ The Plague for insight into… well, into this current plague.

But is just occurred to me, that there is an insight into Trump, or rather, into Trumpism, by which I am referring to the darker parts of the human soul. The fearful parts.

And the final lines of The Plague came to me:

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

The Anxiety Of Influence

This book has been on my list for years, but was almost impossible to find, but there it was at Solid State Books. Even more amazing, after I bought it, they replaced with another copy on the shelves!

For a critic famous for his defense of the traditional canon, the pre-post-colonial canon, as it were, The Anxiety of Influence is a brilliantly, desperately sincere text of postmodern play.

Is Romanticism after all only the waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic poetry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality?

I was caught by the quote because the question of Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism seems to keep coming up, though this answer seems inadequate in terms of history, if not literature.

If here were a poet, his bête noire (or perhaps, I should say daemon) would be Milton (he wants it to be Dante, but it’s Milton). While he praises and respects poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, his idea of poetry was forged between Milton and Keats. In the end, the whole book is about how the sublime is achieved by the great poets. While we can talk about the sublime today, he means it in a sense in which we rarely speak of it – the way Burke spoke about it.

I do not know if I ever will (my to be read stack is quite high), but the highest praise I can give this book is that I want to read it again. Not right away, but when I am older, to sit down in a comfy chair and read this dense, slim labor of love one more time.

The Ideas That Made America

Such a brief book must, necessarily, be swift in its progress. But there is, as always, such a thing, as too much. Amply endnoted, it nonetheless feels shallow. The Enlightenment influenced thought behind America’s founding is dealt with in less than twenty pages. An opening chapter, which subtitled itself ‘Precontact-1740,’ managed to make most of what was said about indigenous people’s thought about Europeans proselytizing to them, which feels more than a little icky.

Transcendentalism, the second most interesting moment in American intellectual history, to my mind, after the Founding period, actually subsumed in a chapter about first half of the nineteenth century, so that an alien who magically read English, but knew nothing about American history, would think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than being a towering figure in the creation of a American intellectual tradition, was more of just a guy who was around and maybe wrote one or two essays that are pretty good.

I would say that the author has a conservative bent (even though she completely fails to give any details about conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and William Buckley believed, despite spending several pages on them), and perhaps because many of America’s most important thinkers were liberal (or even radical) in some way: William James, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.).

The most egregious sin, I think, is that it’s just an assemblage. The book advances no thesis, it just breaks up American intellectual into some distinct time period and gives a breezily brief description of each. Without that, how can you claim these ideas made America?

So,I guess it’s a nice, short primer of some kind, but perhaps not useful for much beyond brushing up on a couple of things to drop in conversation to make yourself sound smart (but hopefully, you don’t encounter anyone who actually read the thinkers, because then you might be caught out, because you won’t have learned that much).