Category: 2016

I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

Brian Wilson was the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys before his life went sideways. In recent years, he’s had a successful solo career, mainly because he found the right woman to marry and got the mental health treatment he needed.

This memoir is quite good, even better than I expected. Reading it feels like you’re seeing the world from Brian’s perspective, as his recurring thoughts and memories, good and bad, come and go. The book is divided into chapters that bring some organization and chronology to the story, but at times it’s like listening to his stream of consciousness.

Never having heard him speak for any length of time, because he is famously terse in interviews, I wondered if his “voice” was really coming through. I think it was. Brian and his co-writer should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. They’ve given us an informative look into the mind of this extremely talented man. 

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jean Bethke Elshtain

One hundred years ago, Jane Addams was one of the most famous and most admired women in the world. 

Wikipedia lists her occupation as “social and political activist, author and lecturer, community organizer, public intellectual”. Her tombstone in Cedarville, Illinois, describes her as a “humanitarian, feminist, social worker, reformer, educator, author, publicist, founder of Hull House, President [of the] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. It also notes that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Addams fought for women’s suffrage and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States. Sociologists view her as a social theorist. Philosophers place her in the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.  At her death, some compared her to her hero, Abraham Lincoln, although she never sought political office.

This well-written book is an intellectual biography of Addams. It tells her life story but concentrates on her ideas and the policies she advocated. I especially enjoyed learning about her work at Hull House (a Chicago organization dedicated to making life better for immigrants and the poor); her ideas about government as an extension of housekeeping; and her emphasis on treating those who are different from us with respect (for their benefit and ours).  

The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2nd Edition) by William Doyle

I now have a feeling for how complex the French Revolution was, since the author goes into great detail while still taking the story from roughly 1775 to 1815. However, this isn’t an introduction to the topic. Events and personalities are mentioned and described as if the author expects the reader to know a lot about French history already. 

A couple things I learned: The large debt France accrued by supporting the American revolution was one of the factors that led to dissatisfaction and the eventual revolution. And the revolution had a major effect on the entire French population, not just the residents of Paris. Most of the victims of the Terror, for example, weren’t Parisians. The revolution also affected all of Europe as it quickly led to war between France and most of its neighbors.

One thing I thought was odd: The author implies that the American revolution played no role in fomenting revolution in France (other than the effect of the debt France acquired):

The modern idea of revolution goes back no further than 1789. But once it had occurred in France, the idea that it was possible, and right, to overthrow an existing order by force, and on grounds of general principles rather than existing law, was launched. Simultaneously a new figure appeared on the stage of history: the revolutionary. There had been no revolutionaries before 1789. 

Tell that to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence or fought in our Revolutionary War. For that matter, tell it to George III.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

Part 1 is entitled “Class Warfare: The Long 19th Century”. In the author’s words:

We should … conceive of a long nineteenth century lasting from post-revolutionary days through to the Great Depression of the 1930s… The epoch that encompassed the transformation of a sliver of coastal villages, small farms, slave plantations and a few port cities into a transcontinental commercial, agricultural and industrial preeminnce was a wrenching one. For those generations that lived through it, it often called forth … recurring waves of resistance to the inexorable, a stubborn, multifarious insistence that the march of Progress was too spendthrift in human lives, that there were alternatives [22-23].

Fraser tells the history of those transitional years by describing political movements, the growth of organized labor and the writings of various intellectuals. It’s a very interesting story that culminates in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the coming of World War 2.

Part 2 is called “Desire and Fear in the Second Gilded Age”. Fraser tries to explain why there has been such little resistance, organized or otherwise, to increasing inequality, stagnant wages and boring, regimented work. He delves into the history again, but also tries to give psychological or sociological explanations. What I took away from this part of the book is that people are distracted by consumer products and mass entertainment; there has been a constant campaign to glorify “the successful” among us; it’s difficult for most of us to imagine an alternative (since the transition to a modern industrial nation happened so long ago); and organized labor has been beaten into submission. The powers that be are highly organized and have a lot of money to spend on maintaining the status quo. Workers aren’t organized at all and many are just trying to get by, plus nobody wants to lose their job to cheap foreign competition by making trouble.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

The fair in question was the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, more formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus visiting the New World. The book provides a lot of information about the fair that I found very interesting, especially the new technology that was introduced. I found the parallel stories of the fair’s chief architect and a serial killer who preyed on visitors to the fair much less interesting. So I skipped some of it, but not the story of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer from Pittsburgh.

He conceived and then built the world’s largest, most amazing Ferris Wheel. People were worried that it would blow over in strong wind, but it remained standing and was the most popular attraction at the fair. It was 264 feet tall and was meant to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been constructed for an earlier world’s fair in Paris. The Ferris Wheel had 36 enclosed cars that could each hold 60 people. That allowed 2,160 people to ride at the same time. That was some Ferris Wheel.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s novel White Noise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985. I read it back then and enjoyed it, but also found it somewhat mysterious. I guess I didn’t know what he was trying to say. Having read it again, and enjoyed it even more, I’d now say he’s commenting on the strangeness and artificiality of modern America lives.

It’s the story of a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college, and the professor’s wife and children, and how they all cope or fail to cope with their confusion and fear. The centerpiece of the novel is an “airborne toxic event” that the family has to escape. But the most important aspect of the story isn’t the plot, or even the characters, but DeLillo’s wonderful language. Real people don’t speak like DeLillo’s characters, but it’s still great to see what they have to say. 

At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

The book’s full title is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Strike the “apricot cocktails” and that pretty well sums it up.

Sarah Bakewell found some fame and fortune with her previous book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I read and enjoyed that one. As usually happens, it made me want to read some of the subject’s writings: the 16th century essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

At the Existentialist Café made me curious about the writings of some of its subjects, but less optimistic about enjoying or even making sense of what they had to say. Reading Bakewell’s descriptions, explanations and quotations of works by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre left me relatively clueless about what reading hundreds of pages of phenomenology or existentialism would be like.

In addition, except for Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, I didn’t find the life stories or idiosyncrasies of these thinkers especially interesting, certainly not as interesting as Bakewell does.

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.