Category: Books

The Weekly Eccentric

Should We Love the Encyclopedia Even If It Doesn’t Love Us?

When asked what he wanted to do with his life, a young man supposedly replied, “Nothing, nothing at all. I like to study; I am very happy, very content; I don’t ask for anything else.”

That was me at age 23, except it wasn’t. It was Denis Diderot (1713–1784). Which is bizarre.

Diderot could’ve been the bizarro me. He was an ex-Catholic-turned-rationalist deist. I’m an ex-non-Catholic-turned-realist Catholic.

But we both loved to study as young men.

We also both liked women. Though I’ve limited my interest to just one, Diderot banged many, including a woman who, though not physically attractive, had such a virile tongue and “male mind” that men called her “the hermaphrodite.” He lost interest in her sexually after a while, since he couldn’t get past rumors that she was involved in a lesbian affair with her own sister.

My love interest, though not a hermaphrodite, played softball for four years in high school . . . and was the catcher, at that.

The bizarro parallels continue.

Diderot, like me, also had a lot of children. Four, to be exact, though all but one died young. Although he loved his surviving daughter tenderly, his home life wasn’t good. His wife was a harridan (which is one of the most under-utilized words in the English language (thanks to Joseph Epstein for bringing it back … Read the rest

Seeking Transcendentals

Why Did I Order a Two-Volume History of Economic Thought?

Fun, improvement, and volunteerism. That’s how we might use current catchwords to answer the primordial question, “How ought we to live our lives?”

That question hit me hard a few summers ago when I opened up a mail package that contained Murray Rothbard’s two-volume set, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. “Am I really going to read these 1,000 pages?” I asked myself. “Why? How much time will it take?”

Every pursuit has an opportunity cost. That’s one reason wise men don’t become obsessed with things like golf, gardening, and fantasy football. “If I obsess on D, I forego A, B, C.”

And if A, B, and C consist of fun things, self-improvement, and volunteerism, D takes on qualities of sin because D starts to hinder what philosophers and theologians refer to as the three “transcendentals”: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. “Fun” is our contemporary way of pursuing beauty, “self-improvement” the contemporary counterpart of truth, and “volunteerism” today’s goodness.

I’m aware that defining Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as “fun,” “self-improvement,” and “volunteerism” is imperfect, imprecise, a bit immature, and maybe even irreverent.

Still, when writing for a contemporary audience, I need to use contemporary terms. And in our culture, the word “Goodness” is never used earnestly, “Truth” is used to connote relativity, and “Beauty” is reserved for naked women. If I want … Read the rest

How Alcohol Fuels Civilization

Gonna pick me up a six-pack of art this evening

Marshall McLuhan made himself a household name, writing about media. Media are tools, things that extend ourselves: a hammer extends our fist, flashlights extend our eyes, etc.

I’m not sure he ever considered whether alcohol might be a medium. That’s the theory of a new book by Edward Slingerland (not Scissorhand), Drunk: How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilization.

The basic premise: Our prefrontal cortex does the reasoning, thinking, and analysis. It, in other words, is the boring part of the brain. When it swells, like it does when we’re concentrating on making a living, it stifles the creative and fun part of the brain. In order to increase creativity and fun, we need to shrink it. Alcohol is a tool that allows us to shrink it.

Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible.

This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case.


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Digging The Great Courses

Greatly enjoying The Great Courses Plus subscription. This time of the year brings long hours in the garden. I love it, but it starts to be a bit much after awhile, with my mind subtly shifting from “We must cultivate our garden,” and all the artistic and spiritual metaphors it evokes, to “Damn, this is a grinding waste of time.”

Podcasts help, but they’re like blogs: a decent source of information, but with emphasis on entertainment and production rather than reliability and accuracy.

Enter the Great Courses Plus. Curated, edited, taught by experts in their fields. The fare isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s still awfully good. Ten years ago, I would’ve given their fare a “9.5” These days, I give it an “8.” In the old days, it was rare to get a bad course. These days, you have a much better chance, but with the “Plus,” you don’t have to buy the lecture to find out that it sucks. If the lecturer grates, delete it. If the presentation is confusing, switch to something else.

Interesting: I’ve long railed against female sportscasters doing men’s sports. Their voices simply don’t “fit” the game. Women aren’t on the field playing, so there is something incongruous about listening to them announce the game.

(Aside: I really dislike the “urban” accent of many black athletes, but in the context of announcing a game? It … Read the rest

What is a Perfect Piece of Knowledge?

An allegory of sorts:

I once read the following (the source escapes me):

Our surroundings call forth certain behavior. We tend to act like students when we step in a classroom, and we tend to act like shoppers at the mall. This is . . . the logic of ‘ecological psychology’: I am not a wholly separate entity from my surroundings, but rather, my [surroundings] and I form an interdependent behavior setting.

I loved it. “Ecological psychology.” Whatta concept. It told me why I’ve always insisted on having a study/library in my house, where the kids’ clutter doesn’t roam and the kids themselves are vowed to civilized behavior when they enter. It explained why I reserve the room for calm reading, thought, and writing. It explained why I want to drink when I’m in a bar.… Read the rest

How to Listen to The Great Courses

Well, gardening season is here.

And that means one thing: I need lots of listening material.

I’ve mentioned it (quite a few) times: One of my favorite activities is to listen to lectures, podcasts, and audiobooks while I garden. My favorite source: The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series. (Caveat below.)

I spent awhile reviewing the various options for acquiring these splendid lectures. I believe there are four (besides just buying each lecture independently at enormous cost):

1. Subscribe to Audible through Amazon. $15 per month. You get a free book once a month, plus offers. It appears the entire Great Courses catalogue is available.

2. Subscribe to Audible independently with its Audible Plus Plan. For $8 monthly, you get access to its “Plus” catalog, which is a misnomer. It means, “Our 500,000 audio selections, minus 489,000.” Only 11,000 titles. There are very few Great Courses books, but there were dozens of audible books that greatly interest me (including a big selection of C.S. Lewis and Thomas Sowell). With this plan you can listen to any of them at no additional charge.… Read the rest

I Almost Became an Anarchist

A mini-review of The Essential Rothbard by David Gordon.

Murray Rothbard almost made me an anarchist.

I had read some of Rothbard’s stuff and had delved into various areas of anarchist thought (mostly through this this somewhat difficult, very thick, often fascinating volume). I’ve abandoned such notions, but my six-month foray was worth it. The anarchists make you ask questions that every person concerned about things public (the republic) should ask: What is the origin of government? How exactly do wars happen? How can a country surrender in a war if it has no government? If the State exists by violence–actual or the threat of–does that tend to make society more violent?

I’ve come to view Rothbard as a great economist, a good historian, and an amateur but unique philosopher. He has his flaws (he tends to indulge in false dichotomies), but he raises questions that the American people ought to ask a lot more frequently.

Gordon’s volume is a great place to start.

Oh, and why didn’t I become an anarchist? Simply because of natural law. We desire to live among others, either for self-preservation or because we are social animals. Once we come together, a hierarchy will naturally develop and from there, government will form.

Anarchism, simply put, isn’t natural.

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This Might Be the Best Book of the 21st Century

Look Homeward, America. Bill Kauffman. ISI Books, 2006.

Strong,  deep, readable, desperate, fun. All those adjectives—even those that trip over one another—fit this book. It’s such a good book, it made me want to quit writing. “If someone like Kauffman, with his erudition and talent, isn’t a household name, what makes me think I can scratch together enough publishable words to cover my underwear budget?”

I’m not saying it’s the best book ever, not even the best book of the past 15 years. Indeed, when I went back through it for this piece, I almost put it back on the shelf: it simply doesn’t have the drunken chimp-like markings of other books I love. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s such a pretty book, with good binding, that I felt bad marking it up.

Regardless, Kauffman’s is a real message. Partially Quixotic, partially crucial . . . and there’s considerable overlap between those. I don’t know if the passages reproduced here will convey the deep current under Kauffman’s light-skipping prose, but I hope they do. If not, buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Kauffman’s display of his prodigious vocabulary alone is worth the price.

I’m pretty sure Kauffman has the biggest vocabulary since Samuel Johnson.

Unique words found in Look Homeward, America:

  • mottle
  • pavid
  • bumptious
  • martinet
  • scarify
  • nonce
  • terrene
  • descant
  • manque
  • phiz
  • clochard

Select Passages

Here are choice passages from … Read the rest