Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by Volker Ullrich

This is the first part of a two-part biography of Hitler. It takes him up to his 50th birthday in 1939, a few months before he started World War 2. I came away with a much clearer understanding of who he was and what his goals were (although the book covers German politics in more detail than I needed).

In a sense, therefore, the book “humanizes” or “normalizes” him. For example, he could be charming. He wasn’t an ignoramus. He could be a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t appear to have been monstrous or even especially anti-Semitic from the beginning. He was certainly a ruthless demagogue even in the 1920s and 1930s as he gained power. Maybe being worshiped by millions of Germans helped turn him into a monster.

I guess what I’m saying is that if he had become a dictator; seized the Rhineland; negotiated Germany’s absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland (the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia) without a shot being fired; and brutally forced the emigration of millions of Jews from Germany, he might have been considered an especially ruthless but successful leader. There have been dictators in the past and will be more in the future. It seems that he descended into the absolute abyss in the six years not covered by Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939. Presumably, Ullrich’s second volume will be called Hitler: Descent 1939 – 1945.

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Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist whose previous book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller. In this one, he tells a familiar story: the history of physics from ancient Greece to the present day. But he tells it in such a charming and enlightening way that the story feels new.

One of the lessons from the book that will stick with me is that, according to current physics, the universe isn’t infinitely divisible. At some point, you’ll get to the bottom where the quanta (or tiniest pieces) are. The surprising part of that idea is that these quanta apparently include the quanta or tiny pieces of spacetime. But these tiniest pieces of spacetime aren’t in space or time. They compose space and time. Here’s how he sums it up at the end of the book:

The world is more extraordinary and profound than any of the fables told by our forefathers…. It is a world that does not exist in space and does not develop in time. A world made up solely of interacting quantum fields, the swarming of which generates — through a dense network of reciprocal interactions — space, time, particles, waves and light….

A world without infinity, where the infinitely small does not exist, because there is a minimum scale to this teeming, beneath which there is nothing. Quanta of space mingle with the foam of spacetime, and the structure of things is born from reciprocal information that weaves the correlations among the regions of the world. A world that we know how to describe with a set of equations. Perhaps to be corrected.

The biggest puzzle Rovelli and his colleagues are working on is how to reconcile the small-scale physics of quantum mechanics and the large-scale physics of general relativity. They aren’t consistent. Currently, the most popular way to resolve the inconsistency is string theory, but Rovelli’s preferred solution is loop quantum gravity. Unfortunately, his explanation of loop quantum gravity was the part of the book where he lost me. Maybe a second or third or fifteenth reading of that section would clear things up.

The other idea that will stick with me is from quantum field theory: among the fields that make up reality, such as the electron field and the Higgs boson field, is the gravitational field. But the gravitational field is just another name for spacetime. Spacetime is the gravitational field and vice versa. That’s what Rovelli claims anyway, although he ends the book by pointing out that all scientific conclusions are open to revision given new evidence and insights.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

There are two principal topics in this book: time travel and time. Since time travel is fiction, the history of time travel presented in the book is the history of ideas about time travel, mostly ideas expressed in novels like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, short stories like Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and movies like The Terminator. Time travel can be fun to think about, and ideas about time travel are suggestive of what people have thought about time, but I quickly lost interest in the topic. So I ended up skimming those sections of the book.

On the other hand, Gleick’s discussion of time itself was worth reading. He covers both physics and philosophy, and does an excellent job explaining complex, competing ideas about time. For example:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it space-time for the convenience of reasoning….

You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

It’s an interesting question whether the calculations of the physicists are so accurate because the universe really is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. And is the passage of time some kind of illusion, like many physicists believe? Gleick leans toward time being quite real and physicists taking their models a bit too seriously. I think this would have been a better book if he spent more time on the physics and philosophy and less time on the fiction.

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a famous philosopher (as famous as philosophers can be these days) known for his very strong utilitarian views:

He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty.  

But he has also written on German philosophy. In 1983, he published Hegel, a brief introduction to the highly influential 19th century philosopher. Hegel is now part of Oxford University Press’s colorful series of “Very Short Introductions”.

Hegel (the philosopher, not the book) wrote a lot and is notoriously hard to understand. That’s one reason so many academics have written about him. Singer does an excellent job. He devotes chapters to four of Hegel’s works (Lectures on the Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Right; The Phenomenology of Mind; and Science of Logic), the principal topics of which are history, freedom, mind and rationality. But since Hegel is what is known as a “systematic” thinker, none of the topics stand alone.

I came away from Hegel with what feels like a better understanding of his thought, although not good enough to explain it to anyone. All I’ll say is that Hegel seems to have viewed Geist (translated as either “mind” or “spirit”) as a real but abstract entity that has progressed through history, advancing toward more and more freedom, culminating in total rationality (the “Absolute”). Singer concludes that Hegel may have been a panentheist:

The term comes from Greek words meaning “all in God”; it describes the view that everything in the universe is part of God, but – and here it differs from pantheism – God is more than the universe, because he is the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Just as a person is more than all the cells that make up his or her body – although the person is nothing separate from the body – so on this view God is more than all the parts of the universe, but not separate from it. Equally, just as no single cells amount to a person, so no individual parts of the universe amount to God. 

[This] interpretation is plausible, not only because it is consistent with what Hegel says specifically about God, but also because it makes sense of the dominant theme of his philosophy. If God is the absolute idea, the ultimate reality of the universe, the whole of its parts, we can understand why the absolute idea must manifest itself in the world, and there progress to self-comprehension. God needs the universe in the same way a person needs a body.

… Hegel sees God not as eternal and immutable, but as an essence that needs to manifest itself in the world, and, having made itself manifest, to perfect the world in order to be perfect itself…. It is a vision that places immense weight on the necessity of progress: for the onward movement of history is the path God must take to achieve perfection. Therein may lie the secret of the immense influence that Hegel, for all his outward conservatism, has had on radical and revolutionary thinkers [note: Karl Marx being the most obvious instance].

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53].