Must-Read Books of 2010

“Do you have a soulmate?” the shrink asked Will Hunting.  A soulmate, someone who challenges you.  “Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke…” replied the precious brat.

“That’s great; they’re all dead.”

“Not to me they’re not.”

This is one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting. Both characters have a point.  The written word can be inflexible, and it lacks the dialectic that is so crucial to learning in many situations.  On the other hand, even if a book is a thousand years old or more, it is still alive.  The author might well have something to say to us today.  Given our poor track record for following the good advice of scribes, it isn’t difficult to find an old book that’s useful today.  This is one of the reasons why reading is as important to me as food, clothing, and water.  If I don’t frequently sit down and soak in the wisdom of great writers, I feel like I forgot to brush my teeth.  It is good to have such enhancing activities; they help us more gracefully to wend through the mysterious space between angels and animals that Man occupies.

Every January, I like to share a list of the best books of the past year—books that I’ve read.  Listening to someone talk about the books they’ve read can be annoying, but please be assured that I realize most people couldn’t care less how much I’ve read, and that’s largely how it should be.  It’s not about me; it’s about the books and my desire to share great ideas with other people.  For other readers, this is an excellent way to maximize effort.  No one wants to read a bad book, so recommendations are key.  I have left out a lot of books that are very deserving of mention.  Perhaps others can speak on their behalf.  I will stick to these:

 

Allan Bloom:  The Closing of the American Mind

When this book was published in the 1980’s it was alternately praised and lambasted as another conservative prophecy of doom.  Any close reading of Bloom’s work, however shows that this reaction was hasty if not illiterate.  Bloom, for instance, laments the collapse of the American family but adds that he isn’t necessarily calling for a return to the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver bliss.  Bloom, in fact, defies categorization.  This is because he is a thinker and a man of the arts.  He is, in a word, human.

Bloom is most famous for his critique of the modern university, which a friend of mine quite accurately says is a monastery gone bad; but to me some of his most striking observations have to do with relationships.  He scratches his head at the cold nature of romance in the youth of the 1980’s:  after years as lovers, two students would part ways with a handshake, and Bloom would be rendered speechless.  In this context the author, who was apparently no sexual prude, sharpens his knives for the modern hookup culture, which he says ruins the aura of real love.

Of particular interest to me is Bloom’s critique of rock music, which he considers to be decadent.  Good music should be an integrating force and not a fragmenting one.  “To Plato and Nietzsche,” he writes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.  Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.  Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity.  A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good.  By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.”

Bloom’s volume is a dense one, and I would only be doing violence to it to try to say too much more than I already have, since every word he writes is important.  He might well sound like a noisy gong to most modern readers because he will prove impossible to pigeonhole into some ridiculous worldview or cause.  Bloom’s argument is not that we need to be more conservative or more liberal, or more or less religious, or even necessarily more decorated with degrees.  I think what he really wanted was a fuller realization of the potential of humanity.  He was, incidentally, an advocate of the Great Books Program, and so I dedicate this post to his memory.

 

Bertrand Russell:  The Problems of Philosophy

One of the things that all the warring world views of humanity have in common is that their practitioners think their system can solve all the world’s problems.  If only everyone would listen to what So-and-So says, there would be peace on earth, a chicken in every pot, a case of beer in every fridge, and five computers in every home.  The best of the So-and-Sos, of course, are cautious of such naivete.  The problem is that usually it’s some follower of the So-and-So that implements the realization of the philosophy, and these people are usually wearing blinders.

This arrogance, it seems to me, comes from a failure to understand the limits of human reason, and that, to me, is the most important contribution of this work of Lord Bertrand Russell.  He begins his work with a discussion of appearance and reality, using a table as an example.  We can see a table, and touch it, but does the table exist outside our ability to perceive it?  In other words, does it have an existence of its own?  This eventually leads to a discussion about Idealism, which holds that reality owes its existence to human thought, a notion that Russell rejects.

Nonetheless, Russell is no Randian Objectivist and courageously faces the limits of ratiocination, the process of human reasoning.  Some questions, for instance, can only be solved through inductive reasoning, as indeed many scientific experiments are conducted.  The more an experiment is repeated successfully, the more likely it is that the conclusions are true.  This kind of reasoning is imperfect but is often as close as we can get.

Somewhat different from inductive reasoning is a priori reasoning and general principles.  2+2=4 is an example of a priori reasoning; even if one doesn’t know the answer to this equation when he starts, he usually has the tools and the knowledge of general principles to come to the right conclusion.  This is a sturdy form of reasoning, as long as one’s premises are correct, but in many areas of human thinking it is impossible to know this for sure.  Because of this, Russell rejects the use of philosophical techniques for fields such as theology.

After so much talk of the limits of philosophy, one might wonder, “What’s the use?”  We modern men in particular like to have definite answers to everything; we are fundamentalists even in matters of whether or not the tree makes a noise in the forest if there is no one there to hear it fall.  Russell, however, sees much of the value of philosophy coming precisely from its uncertainty.  He says, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

Philosophy, in other words, makes us more thoughtful.

 

Jeffrey Tucker:  Bourbon for Breakfast

I have already reviewed this book here.

 

Jean Renoir:  My Father

The well-known filmmaker Jean Renoir has written a riveting account of the life of his father, the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir.  As a musician, I’m fascinated with visual artists precisely because they use entirely different faculties than I use.  Oddly enough, though, what sticks with me are Renoir’s criticisms of modern life.  He was old enough to remember simpler, pre-industrial times, and he despised the centrally planned Paris that was poured with concrete.  Renoir in general hated modern life—the ugliness, the pace, the utilitarianism.

A conscientious capitalist who loves beauty is compelled to pause when reading a book like this to re-examine his ethical beliefs.  We would be fools to pretend there hasn’t been a downside to industrialism.  One could argue, for instance, that the Southern black slaves were being freed just as the Northern white servants were about to be imprisoned:  Many people feel stuck as a cog in the technological wheel, cubicle dwellers who are paid to leave their creativity and ingenuity at home.  And without an agrarian culture, one’s options are limited.  A landed man is a free man; a man in an apartment with rent and utilities to pay is on rather a tight leash.

Why support capitalism, then?  Leaving aside the usual caveat that the modern west is not a free market but rather a partially-free mercantilist one, there are some things to be considered.  Firstly, much of the leisure that gives us the free time to criticize modern life is a direct result of the industrial revolution, as are such things as extended life spans—hardly things to be lamented.  But beyond this, I still choose capitalism, because in its essentialness, capitalism is freedom.  I’m not talking about the capitalism of  the corporatist racket;  I’m talking about the capitalism of free exchange, the mutuality between merchant and customer.  It’s a system that allows everyone to say yes or no.

And it allows those committed to the arts to say yes or no—donors, consumers, and practitioners.  In, for instance, a socialist economy, man is not free to decide how much he will work and how much he will play.  The decision is made for him; he owes his time to the State.  In freedom, he can choose the best possible road, taking into consideration all the variables in front of him; not only those that can be measured, but those that cannot be.  For those who have not heeded the advice of Bertrand Russell, constructive leisure time is not important; they would rather work 60 hours a week to pay for the extra car in the garage.  For others, they want just enough money to survive; to them, living well is broader, deeper, and higher than one’s income level.

No one can deny that the arts have suffered in our times.  But fundamentally this is not a crisis of being helpless in the face ineluctable historical or economic forces; rather, it is a crisis of choice.  Most of us have chosen money, forgetting that man cannot live on bread alone.  Shame on us.

One final thought on Renoir:  There seems to be no genius where there is no suffering.  Renoir was surprisingly sane for a creative person.  (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m a crazy person who does his best, at least, to be creative.)  His pain in life was physical, taking the form of arthritis.  There are pictures of him in which the malformation of his hands is obvious.  It’s a great mystery how he was ever able to hold a brush with an organ that had basically devolved into a glorified claw.  It’s beautiful.  It’s inspiring.  It takes away all my excuses.

 

Seneca:  The Shortness of Life

Seneca (whose full name has something like umpteen words in it) was perhaps the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, who were essentially ancient precursors to the prudent American Puritan.  That’s not all bad; in small doses admonition to responsibility can be a good thing.

Seneca adjures his readers to keep their death always in mind.  Dark, I know, which is why I liked it.  Seneca’s point, though, is to a constructive end; it is not his desire to induce a John Donne-like bout of depression.  All resources are limited, including the space in which our lives exist.  Each of us has an unknown amount of time.  For this reason, we often hear that life is short.  Seneca, on the other hand, says that life is long if you know how to use it.  Seneca would ask each of us, “What are you doing right now, and why?”  We often waste time in our lives on things that we don’t really want to do, on tasks that are not only distasteful, but utter distractions from our real goals.

Putting his advice to use, of course, means learning how to say no.  Leonard Bernstein’s mother once quipped that it was a good thing he wasn’t a woman, because he never learned how to say no.  Bernstein, however, was a genius, and geniuses tend to be able to master superhuman schedules.  Most of us, on the other hand, need to make very careful decisions.  As the world gets more and more antisocial, people seem to become more and more demanding all the same.  We have forsaken affection for expectations, and this is not a good thing.  It can be difficult to cut out the underbrush of one’s schedule, but take courage, and remember your death.  As Boobus Americanus Primus said, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”

 

G.K. Chesterton:  The Everlasting Man

I read a lot of literature about religion, works that I agree with and that I disagree with.  It is a fascinating subject, and an important one.  For much of this work I have turned to an early 20th century Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man is as fresh and as relevant as anything that could be written by Joseph Ratzinger (whose excellent Introduction to Christianity I also read this year), Karen Armstrong, or Richard Dawkins.  (Dawkins tries too hard; it gets old after awhile.)

It is common in Western Christian discourse to tackle The God Question with various kinds of philosophical proofs and theological parsing.  Mystics reject this approach, but so do other more “down-to-earth” thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, as an author of a number of novels, sees The God Question in terms of a history, that is, a story, an adventure.  He says, for instance, that while the idea of a man being damned may be an unattractive one, the idea that man is damnable is quite obviously true, and accounts for mankind’s constant struggles against failure.  Hell is simply a reflection of our own ability to sabotage ourselves.

Against the historical materialism of many of the thinkers of his day, Chesterton applies the notion of immutable human nature to the question of the existence of God.  Why, for instance, did supposedly pre-human animals feel the need to create art in the caves?  What was the purpose of this art?  I’m having a hard time remembering the full argument, and I don’t have the book with me, but if you are interested in philosophy and religion, this is a good book for you.

 

Peter Ackroyd:  The House of Doctor Dee

I should call this book, “The Token.”  I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I try to do a little every year.  I have a couple of friends that I’ve put in charge of getting me the right fiction books.  One in particular is good at picking out contemporary English authors who show us that not everything written today needs to be a sleazy Danielle Steele novel.

In this book, a young chap inherits an old house owned by his deceased father.  It’s a cute little dwelling, consisting of mismatched parts built at different times.  The house turns out to be haunted by a ghost of a former owner, one Doctor Dee, a sixteenth century practitioner of black magic.  There are many fascinating erudite references in the book to stroke the egos of intellectually vain jackasses like me, but what I remember the most is the shiver that went up my spine in sections of this story.  If ghosts exist, I’m afraid of them.  And even if they don’t, I’m still afraid of them.  Ask me what happened once on Big Round Top in Gettysburg.

 

Hans-Hermann Hoppe:  Democracy:  The God That Failed

It’s common for a modern American history course to go like this:  Once upon a time, there were these evil men called kings, who used and abused their subjects to their hearts’ content, and the world was dark and dreary with no sense whatsoever of the idea of human dignity.  Then along came America, and they set the whole world free with equal rights and democracy.  The peasants rejoiced, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our government.

This narrative, of course, is largely unquestioned; it is scripture to most people.  Hans-Hermann Hoppe, certainly one of the foremost anarcho-capitalist thinkers of our time, pops this balloon of naivete unapologetically in his book, Democracy:  The God That Failed.

He begins with a careful examination of monarchical government and the several advantages that it held.   A king could not forcibly tax, and he could not forcibly conscript soldiers.  Those mercenaries that modern political scientists like to insult came at a high price; military commanders were therefore rather hesitant to risk their troops’ lives unnecessarily.  Many battles were conceded as soon as one side or the other took the high ground.  Wars were not, for the most part, fought in population centers but out in the fields, away from the citizenry, who considered war to be the irrelevant sandbox fighting of the oligarchy.   In a monarchical system, class divisions were in the forefront of awareness, making the population healthily wary and skeptical of the brainchildren of the royalty.  Kings also had a harder time being looters.  Since they planned to pass their kingdoms on to their posterity, they did everything they could to increase the value of the area through approaches comparatively friendly to businessmen.  And finally, for all the talk about the absolute rule of kings, they were beholden to the natural law.  New measures were expected to be elucidations on natural law.  There was no place for positivism, and where a king stepped out of line, there were powers in place to remove him if necessary.

Hoppe contrasts life under Kings and Queens with life under Congresses and Presidents.  The modern democratic nation-state forcibly taxes—Isn’t it ironic that after rebelling against a tax, the Americans put taxation provisions into their new founding document?—and it has forcibly conscripted soldiers.  Total warfare has resulted from the enemy’s desire to cripple the whole economy, since forcible taxation renders everyone a contributor to the military effort.  Class divisions in the modern nation-state are blurred, though one could argue that during this depression they have begun to make a comeback.  But by and large the fact that any of us can apply for a job with the government makes us forget that there are the rulers and the ruled.  While kings ruled for life and passed their property on to their children, thereby creating an incentive to nurture the land, elected officials only rule for a short time, which creates an incentive to loot.  And while kings were bound by natural law, the modern nation-state maintains that justice is decided by a majority vote, natural law be damned.

Hoppe is not a monarchist and admits that there were problems with monarchies.  Like modern constitutional governments, the royal system decayed at least partly because of its own arrogance:  “Divine right” ceased to be the idea that the king owed his power to God and became the idea that the king could call upon God to justify any of his decisions.  This was the beginning of positivism.  But clearly democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and this is where Hoppe begins his appeal on behalf of what he calls the natural order, which is what many of us call anarcho-capitalism, the system of a common law ethic built on private property rights and the free market–without the existence of a monopoly on violence, otherwise known as government.

Usually I like to list ten books, but this year I just didn’t have ten that I could recommend unreservedly, owing to one factor or another, few of which reflect on the actual quality of the books.  I would like to thank the friends who pointed me in the direction of some of these works.  They know who they are.  Cicero said that if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  In my case it might be appropriate to replace the garden with a microwave, but in any event I’m quite glad to say that my cup runneth over.

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One Response

  1. I have to check out a couple of books from that list.. need to take a break from a bout of bad science fiction.
    Also, Good will hunting is one of my favorite movies, and that scene is classic! kudos to you :)

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