Category: Downtime

The coddling of the American mind – Economist

The Economist has a review of a new book: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

It looks fascinating though, sadly, my Must Read shelf is currently creaking at its limit.

Yet, in a week when Manchester University Student Union bans clapping and cheering (to reduce anxiety), the book offers a crumb of comfort:

In reality, only a minority of students take part in the more egregious sorts of disorder that “The Coddling” documents. In the spectrum of threats to Western democracy, cock-eyed campus politics may not entirely deserve the attention it attracts.

Maybe, I can still find a little space …

 

 

Tom Wolfe on the art of fiction

Kurt at Cultural Offering points us to this 1991 Paris Review interview with Tom Wolfe. fascinating. Worth a read.

 I realized instinctively that if I were going to write vignettes of contemporary life, which is what I was doing constantly for New York, I wanted all the sounds, the looks, the feel of whatever place I was writing about to be in this vignette. Brand names, tastes in clothes and furniture, manners, the way people treat children, servants, or their superiors, are important clues to an individual’s expectations.

Image: National Endowment for the Humanities

Downtime: A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe

A Man In Full was my first Tom Wolfe novel. It had been on my Must Read list for a few years and, when Tom Wolfe died, I finally ordered a copy.

It’s a beautifully observed, beautifully written book that shows you its worlds through the eyes of each character, immersing you in their perceptions and prejudices.

It is often referenced because of its use of Stoic philosophy and that seems to come on two levels.

There’s the slap-in-the-face-obvious storyline of a man in his hour of darkest need, who comes across a Magic Book. The constant references thereafter to Zeus  play to this surface reading, so I guess that may have been Wolfe’s intent.

However, at a more interesting and subtle level, all of the main characters go through something of a Stoic revelation. In each arc, we see and experience their  own version of  “being a man”, from former football hero and real-estate mogul Charlie Croker’s trophy-wifed, quail-hunting, plantation-owning,  machismo, through Roger White’s educated, elegant, professional career, to young Conrad’s desperation to provide for his family. As the story progresses,  each evolves a different – and perhaps more Stoic – view of what it means to be a “man in full”.

I enjoyed it enormously, yet I came away feeling slightly let down by the final 100 pages or so (of 740). They felt rushed and, I suppose, I wanted a slightly different ending.

That said, it’s well worth a read over the summer.

 

Downtime: Marcus Aurelius – Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor by Frank McLynn

We talk a lot about Marcus Aurelius, but often know nothing beyond the 100-odd pages of Meditations, the published collection of his private notebooks.

Frank McLynn corrects this with a comprehensive biography of the famed philosopher-king. It’s a weighty read, but fascinating. I came away a much richer understanding of Roman history, economy, geography and military as well as some insight into the man and his beliefs.

I think it’s fair to say that McLynn is no Stoic himself, but it is interesting to understand the history of Stoicism and how it was understood in Marcus’ own time.

If I’m not too late, this would make a fantastic holiday read.

Downtime: Songs of Bob Dylan by @joan_osborne

Sublime.

I love Joan Osborne’s voice and her cover of Dylan’s Man In The Long Black Coat was a high-point in her excellent debut (Relish) way back in 1995.

This album offers fresh takes on some Dylan classics. As Osborne says in this Rolling Stone interview:

There were also a couple songs that we tried to do where we couldn’t really find unique arrangements. We did “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” I still enjoy singing that song and we do it live sometimes, but I didn’t feel like we were able to come up with any way to record it that would justify putting it on the record and saying, “OK, here’s a new way into this song.” So that was really kind of the criteria. It was: Is there something left to say about this song that hasn’t already been said? And if the answer was yes, then we pursued it. And if the answer was no, and we really thought that a song had been well-served by other versions, then we left it alone.

Joan Osborne’s site is here.

The album is here.

Great listening for the weekend.

Downtime: Brazil by Terry Gilliam

When Terry Gilliam’s dystopian, retro-futuristic vision first came out (in 1985), I was blown away. So much so, I watched it twice in succession, in a tiny cinema in Stratford-upon-Avon that doubled as some sort of tourist attraction during the day.

As you might expect from Gilliam, the film is a visual delight.

With strong echoes of Orwell’s 1984, its quirky humour highlights, rather than softens, the darkness of an omniscient – but woefully inefficient – bureaucracy. And like 1984, Brazil was written as a satire of its own time. Anyone who has ever argued with a “computer-says-no” bureaucrat will know this world.

The hapless dreamer of a protagonist – Sam Lowry – is played by a young Jonathan Pryce, better known these days for wily, mendacious characters like Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow and Taboo’s Sir Stuart Strange or Wolf Hall’s Cardinal Wolsey.

It is strange, bleak and beautiful.

Here’s the trailer…

And here’s Gilliam talking about the film …

Downtime: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

2075 viewed from 1966. The moon is a penal colony upon which the earth depends for food supplies, and its central supercomputer has developed consciousness.

Regularly topping lists of the best libertarian fiction, 50 years after it was written, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress wears its age well. I read it last Christmas, it was my first Heinlein book and I loved it.

The best science-fiction tackles big themes, using its blank canvas to paint familiar things in a new light. Done well, the result is anything but ponderous. You can see it in some of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is like that. It’s an engaging story that addresses libertarianism, self-determination, freedom and the mechanics of running a revolution. It has a tangy layer of cynicism, too, that leaves me pondering the real meaning of the book’s famous motif of the brass cannon (Heinlein’s original title for the book).

Widely viewed as Robert Heinlein’s  crowning glory, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is perfectly considered escapism for the summer holidays.