Q1 2019 in Books

It’s been a long few months, and quite honestly, my reading pace has been a bit slow. I’ve at this point read all of Charles Murray‘s books, none of which I plan to include in this roundup: I am wrapping up The Bell Curve presently. Murray, like Jordan Petersen and many of the other so-called villains of our time, are among some of my favorite contemporary personalities. Related, I’ve also been bingeing on Quillette, my now ultimate favorite literary site.

The hustle is real in my life, and I have lots of fly time in Q2 and Q3. I am excited to return to beautiful Sarajevo in June; as well as continue onto Tbilisi, then onto Wave Gotik Treffen… and if I survive the Choquequariao to Machu Picchu hike at the end of June, I’m sure there will be at least a handful of llama sacrifice photos to post from Inti Raymi in Cusco. I am blessed to have been born on traditional Swedish midsummer, among other things, as June 24 is full of bizarre celebrations around the world. So, turn 35, and then probably die on this hike. Can’t wait.

Moving on…

Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia. I will probably never stop reading Bosnia books. I have certainly not stopped watching Balkans documentaries and films; clearly weeks in the region has done nothing to quell my infatuation. This story is long and complex; it takes place in a small village near Višegrad, and ends as many do in Srebrenica. These stories are never boring because they are all so different and have so many individual histories interwoven throughout. The author is talented and writes with a lot of passion (he is also married to a Serb), but it takes a long time to read (this is not a detriment). Good review in The Independent here.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. It reminded me to some degree of another very long book of which I have only scratched the surface, Children of the Arbat, only in the way there are many different characters built out and they proceed in their lives and in the time they’re constructed in many different directions. The Future is History is essentially a run-down of 90s Russia, and how Putin’s rise affected people at different levels of society (with those people skewed toward people connected to some prominent figures of the time). The way the book is constructed allows you to amass pretty detailed portraits of each of them, which made it impossible to stop reading. New York Times review (written by Francis Fukuyama, interesting) here.

My Struggle: Book 4. I’m losing a bit of interest in Karl Ove’s endless autobiography. Perhaps the point of this exercise is that I’ve come to realize as I like myself more as I have aged, I also like other people more as they have aged, and at the points in this sweeping tale where he is an adult, I tend to find him less boring and more existentially explosive. That said, I think one of the qualities of this series is intended to be boredom, as anyone’s life when deconstructed into tiny subjugates is actually really tedious and even more irrelevant. Book 4 is mostly about him teaching in northern Norway and trying to get laid, beset by premature ejaculation, overdrinking and the awkwardness that looms over his head for what seems like his entire existence (this is true for virtually all Norwegians, they are born awkward and die awkward… it’s part of their charm). I’m a few chapters into Book 5 now, and am charmed thus far by his return to Bergen. New York Times review here (the reviewer was more impressed than I was by this book, though I think ‘airy’ is a good description).

Book 1 blew me away, and I enjoyed Book 2 as well; I have every intention to complete the series in my waking moments on airplanes, when I am not actually reading or sleeping to Mary Beard’s SPQR, which is so incredible that after listening to the audiobook while conscious, I now turn it on to sleep to… the woman narrator is like the British grandmother I never had. I chose to listen to My Struggle on audiobook, and I cannot say enough incredible things about Edoardo Ballerini’s reading of this massive volume. It is perfect. As an aside, I’ve always struggled with audiobooks; I am much more of an actual reader, but I’ve had some incredibly good experiences, and the $10 a month or whatever I pay Audible subscription has been a really great deal.

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. I found this book to be a little dry and neverending, but it was an interesting (and especially historical) take on the narcissism epidemic afflicting virtually everyone on social media… but much moreso, it is about the origins of the idea of self esteem, perfectionism, etc. A lot of the history and anecdotes in this book were completely new to me, and aside from the sections on philosophy and early Western thought, I was pretty unfamiliar with the rest of this content. A lot of these kinds of critiques tell the same stories in different ways; this one is not like the others. Two links for this, first a review, and second an interview with the author in Quillette.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin. I loved this book, this story, this woman, despite the fact that her idealism eventually resulted in her death in Homs. I also saw the movie, A Private War, which was good, though it omitted quite a lot (like her hiking over the mountains out of Chechnya, huffing and puffing from an adulthood of chain smoking, what a badass). I have always admired war reporters: you have to be a special kind of fucked up to be one, and their stories and lives are always both interesting and tragic. Colvin was no different. This women was beloved by Yasser Arafat; Muammar Gaddafi; quite a few other inaccessible and often evil people. She earned peoples’ trust and it was likely because she was genuine. She was a real person, and she maintained that real-ness until the day she died.

Side note, I watched a film recently called Single Frame about a man from Texas who happens upon a photo of a young boy taken during the Kosovo war in the late 90s, and the film is about him tracking down the boy. He meets a man at a cafe while in Kosovo, who tells him pretty gruffly that essentially to give a shit about some boy in a photograph is such an American thing, that it’s a privilege to have a life so nice you can care about a stranger you see in a photo somewhere and have the resources (not to mention the emotional space, the stability in your own life) to track him down. I think this is the kind of thing Americans don’t want to hear… it is so true.  Westerners give a shit because we are safe, and that’s the only reason we are able to do so. With that said, this kind of Western concern is not a detriment to the world, and has likely saved millions of lives. These war reporters are no different, and many of them have risked their own prosperous lives in stable countries to carry concerns of the less fortunate. Colvin was the perfect combination of interesting-tragic, long tormented by the death of her father, heavy drinker and likely anorexic, terrible man-picker, brooding with passion and courage. She lived hard and she died early and she’d probably do it all over again… which makes the story of her life (and death) worth a read and a watch.

Bowling Alone. I can’t believe I had never read this before. I also thought it had been made into a documentary, which it has not been. I’m not sure any of the content was a surprise to me: it is very much about civic engagement’s decline over time, and ultimately it seems as though television and the internet are very much to blame, which I suppose makes sense. There is no sign of this turning around, and it is likely to only get worse; I would recommend The Big Sort over Bowling Alone, but I think both these books are thought provoking. Wikipedia article on the book here.

Salt on Your Tongue: Women and The Sea. Let’s close with a book I really was not a fan of at all. I had high hopes after reading a very positive Economist review… which was a reminder I shouldn’t believe every (review) I read. I found this short book dreadfully boring and filled with only the most widely known mythological anecdotes. The review is quite honestly better than the book… boo hiss. I hate admitting I don’t like I book; this is the first one I’ve read in a long time I thoroughly did not enjoy.

Sometime this week I’ll follow up with random shit I’ve been watching on Netflix/etc. 

The Instant Gratification Age

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post this week on OKCupid and Tinder optimizing for hookups instead of romance. For obvious reasons, repeat customers are the chronically single kind, and in the same way Apple’s first generations of iPods were discontinued because they don’t break fast enough, you obviously see waning profits in a place where people pair off and close their accounts.

I have a bit of a different experience with OKCupid, and after a weekend of ruminating over it, I decided to shut down my account for the final time, despite meeting some of my closest friends through the platform (some as much as a decade ago). The functionality and format have changed, and it seems as though the audience has, too. Gone are the days people had long profiles and you could search anywhere, for anything, and messages would fly around with no pre-approval swipes. Part of the cause conveniently left out of the WP article was the #metoo movement and the growing preference for institutionally suppressing instead of ignoring unwanted messages… part of it is that social media has a whole has likely made people more fickle. Where a conversation fails or a person isn’t perfect (at least in the dating realm), why stick around? There are thousands more candidates. And despite all that, people seem lonelier, and more defeated in that loneliness.

Most of my closest friends have been de-Googling or have never (or only very lightly) joined the ranks of social media: I have a stern set of rules for myself, and limit myself to Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of the rationale is the quality of the content. Some of it is the narcissism it spurns in people, and the way social media has caused peoples’ desperate attention and validation to fester in unbelievable ways. For all the options we have, it seems harder to relate to each other, not easier.

I admit I have used dating sites very infrequently for actual dating, but it’s impossible to ignore the changing attitudes and the way people interact in general. It took some time to come to the conclusion that although this platform had assisted in finding excellent activity partners who became close friends (I have always been very mobile and like to meet people all over), that due to the platform changes I would be limited in what I could get from it moving forward.

I suppose in some ways I feel as though the world is leaving me behind, and I know some others feel that way as well. I suppose if I really had wanted to be a living microcosm of my generation, I wouldn’t live in Anchorage, where cosmopolitan glamour goes to die. That said, living up here has changed me so fundamentally that I’d struggle to make higher quality connections if I lived in a metro area full-time again instead of here.

I’ve never been fully convinced of the supremacy of meeting people to date online: most of my favorite ex-partners have been people I’ve met in real life, and they weren’t people who liked all the same things as me (I think this actually has very little to do with relationship quality). There was a time, though, when these sites provided a quality of access that they no longer do, because expectations have become so empty and unreasonable.

One of my favorite researchers of this topic, Sherry Turkle of the MIT Media Lab, writes and speaks (below) a lot about this, and it’s something that’s always been interesting to me. It’s also been a fascinating time to live in Alaska, where cultural values are extremely different and there is much more emphasis on real life (more on this to come). I’m grateful I moved here: for all its deficits, Alaska is about real, actual experience, and I have leaned on those pillars more and more over the years as my generation has morphed into something somewhat unrecognizable.

On Sameness

This opinion piece was shared with me yesterday, and it’s one worth a few more words. Its author could have said a lot more about how short-sighted the original article is, and it’s been awhile since I have written anything here.

The original article: The Unbearable Sameness of Cities
Commentary op-ed: Tragically Hipster

Without sounding like too much of a jerk, I’m mildly surprised NY Magazine published Schwindt’s article, even online. I consider myself judgmental to a flaw (it’s something I’ve tried hard to change over the years, but progress is slow, and I think I will always have a Northeastern chip on my shoulder)… but this article is astounding in its lazy judgment and generalization of strangers.

I found the Commentary piece especially charming because one of the books I read (and loved) this past summer was Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. American cities as we know them today have come full circle, with incredible revival especially in downtown districts. And on a more simplistic level, Schwindt might have had less time to focus on the Ikea light fixtures if she had taken time to speak to business owners, chefs or even the ‘young and tattooed and bespectacled’ people behind the counters. What she might have found is that today’s cities, from Nashville to Portland to Austin to Milwaukee to Sacramento, are home to people who love those places and through their commitment to their cities, add many individual pieces of passion that the cities in Jacob’s books had lost through urban planning. Anyone looking into the past at cities like Atlanta, Austin, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle and even Los Angeles and New York would see vastly different human landscapes, and it’s tough to think of many things more authentic than these cities having grown into what they are today.

Reading the original article made me wonder what its writer is really looking for, as I’m not sure what is more authentic than breweries popping up everywhere with their own unique offerings (I think back to being in Denver years ago and stopping into Trve Brewing, a metal brewery erected and much loved thanks to the city’s burgeoning metal scene). Jacobs hated that people couldn’t dine out where they lived; they couldn’t buy groceries in the same block they drank a beer or did their laundry. She explained in Death and Life that restaurant traffic at night, when people were home in the neighborhood, put feet on the ground and added extra vigilance, and crime was less likely when that foot traffic existed in residential spaces where people lived.

In the Western world, prosperity has a sort of look; I mentioned this regarding Prague, and the way it’s begun to look like any other Western European capital. I’ve wondered myself if this is a bad thing, or a dull thing, or a vapid one. Overall, it’s probably a wonderful thing. The sameness Schwindt saw was prosperity, and the ease of doing business: the social capital and societal wealth of the cities and communities within them. What you read in her words is the high level of societal wealth you need to be born into to bitch about having too many restaurants to choose from, and to take the history of cities in America for granted.

More than anything, her exposé on sameness is a display of how easy it is to accumulate hypotheses based on sight alone, and how moronic it is to simply look at someone and pass judgment. Not once in this article was the content of a conversation conveyed. She did not stop once to talk to anyone, to ask important questions: ‘what are you trying to do here?’ to someone who owns a restaurant; not ‘what makes this city special?’ or ‘why here?’ to practically anyone. The real tragedy of articles like this is that there is no expression of curiosity, no desire for a depth of understanding. She wants to see authenticity, without having any real understanding of what she’s looking for.

As someone who finds myself defending New York on a fairly regular basis, I understand this constant search for authenticity. I’ve said many times I prefer New York to Boston, which always felt small and sterile and overbearing to me. I like a city with some garbage on the street here and there, some traces of flawed, impulsive humanity. When I lived in Boston, I found the emptying of its downtown at night creepy and unnatural; as though it was closed for cleaning and would reopen for regular business hours. I think the disarray of many neighborhoods in New York are beautiful and convenient, and comforting to me: everything is chaotically smashed together, and operations churn eternally. I remember moving to Boston for college and thinking it was bullshit that last call at the bar was so early; Massachusetts felt like a nanny state to me, where New York you could get a vodka tonic at 4am and a breakfast sandwich at 11pm if that’s what you wanted. These differences in culture are largely explained in a very cool book I came across, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America: New York/New Jersey’s mercantile beginnings are at odds with the Puritan “community first” underpinnings of New England. In New York, enough people want eggs at midnight to have a diner open and serving. By contrast, in Boston it seemed to me someone decided me ordering a drink at 2am was not acceptable.

But I digress. The two books in this post are well worth the read, if you’re into that sort of thing. And the NY Magazine piece is a great example of how not to live your life steeped in superiority but lacking any desire to really connect or learn. It’s hard to dispute that Jacobs (who died in 2006) would be pleased by the beautiful public spaces that have popped up in Portland; the incredible path from grunge to tech hub that Seattle has taken; the dramatic drop in crime in New York, and growing vibrancy in cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville and Austin, which were nondescript blips on a map when she wrote Life and Death. In my lifetime, we will likely see Detroit, Pittsburgh and others rise to those same heights; it’s a shame people in my generation will bitch and moan every step of the way, too caught up with their own supposed uniqueness and authenticity to bother to delve into anyone else’s.