The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

It’s a dodgy proposition, reading about a pandemic while living through one.

I had hoped that picking up ‘The Black Death’ would broaden my perspective, pull me out of the stress of the past few years and remind me that we are all subject to the great shiftings of history. Remind me that there have been other sufferings and that this, too, shall pass.

It worked, but not as I had expected. Rather than reconciling me to the vicissitudes of fate, reading ‘The Black Death’ reminded me, forcefully, that human history (including our own) is so often farce. That we are imperfect beings groping blindly after solutions to problems that we rarely even understand. That there isn’t much to do but learn to laugh at ourselves, even while we suffer.

So, in that spirit, as we limp through our own pandemic, I have culled from this book a list of tips for avoiding the plague, from people who lived through it:

  • Plague is carried by “miasmic air”, so avoid the coast – miasmic air might waft off the sea.
  • On the other hand, it might not.
  • Avoid marshes and windy places for the same (possible) reason.
  • Burn nice-smelling woods and plants – good smells may drive off the miasmic air. Ash, juniper, musk, cyprus, laurel, rosemary are all good.
  • Likewise, fill your home with flowers.
  • Bad smells may also drive off miasmic air, so hang your head over the latrine and breathe deeply (it does not say how often or for how long – better safe than sorry).
  • Sprinkle rose-water and vinegar on the floor of your house.
  • Carry around an apple – smell that.
  • Live in a house that faces north.
  • Avoid lepers: they are jealous and may try to poison you.
  • Lie around – do not exercise.  When you exercise, you breathe more heavily and will breathe more miasmic air (perhaps, if you are desperate, you may exercise in the latrine?).
  • For this reason, definitely do not have sex, under any circumstances. If you must, try not to exert yourself too much.
Philip Ziegler
  • Don’t sleep on your back.
  • Don’t sleep after eating.
  • Speaking of eating, don’t eat fish – they come from the miasmic sea.
  • Don’t eat hard-boiled eggs.
  • Don’t eat lettuce.
  • If you must eat, mix ten-year-old treacle with wine and chopped snake – eat that.
  • Grind an emerald into powder so strong that “if a toad looked at it, its eyes would crack” – eat that.
  • If you must drink, mix a drink of lemon, rose-water, peppermint, and apple-syrup – drink that.
  • Mix one ounce of gold with eleven ounces of quicksilver over heat, “let the quicksilver escape”, add forty-seven ounces of water of borage, store for three days over heat in an air-tight container, then drink that.
  • Take an amethyst, etch onto it a picture of man bowing and holding a snake, its head in his right hand, and its tail in his left.  Set the amethyst in a gold ring.  Wear that.
  • Definitely do not bathe.
  • If you must wash, only wash your hands with vinegar or rose-water.
  • Get bled – try to give eight pounds (say, three and a half liters) of blood.
  • Even though everyone around you is dying, don’t get sad.  This makes you more susceptible to the miasma.

And above all, stay calm.

Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig

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I’m not sure what to do about Marie Antoinette.

I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to actually be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined. But she is one of the more polarizing figures in European history (which does not lack for them), and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even a casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt urgent except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her: ‘Marie Antoinette: the Portrait of an Average Woman’, based largely on Antoinette’s own letters.  It’s a curious project: despite its title, it is a sympathetic biography (let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly), even a love letter of sorts, written by Zweig to a woman who, despite her imperfections, seems to have captured his heart centuries too late.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force an uncooperative subject into their narrative mold. Often, biographies of this sort feel less like historical documents than rhetorical exercises, advocacy rather than education. Reading ‘Marie Antoinette’ felt more than anything like listening to the closing arguments of a good defense lawyer. It was familiar – I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch.

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself (the image of her cavorting in her “peasant hut” in Petite Trianon is impossible to forget).  It is also clear that her own stupidity and cupidity contributed to the manner of her death: despite receiving a great deal of very sound advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was a self-involved moron, she was also more complicated than I had realized.  She loved her children (not a universal trait among European monarchs), and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen.  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

I certainly do not believe that receiving Great Love makes you a Great Person. But Zweig wisely realizes that Fersen is Antoinette’s best advocate, and devotes a lot of space to their love story. In fact, it is quite difficult to read Fersen’s letters and not feel your heart soften towards the woman who inspired them:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

Fersen was devastated by Antoinette’s execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades. He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

Stefan Zweig

Antoinette is an easy historical villain. She inhabited such extraordinary privilege before her death that it seems almost perverse to work to give her depth, post-mortem. Better to spend that effort investigating the lives of the millions of unremembered poor whose suffering funded her obliviousness. As a moral project, I’m not sure that a defense of Marie Antoinette should be a high priority for anyone. But Zweig is a literary author, not a moralist. And he is so clearly fond of Antoinette, which gives me pause. I respect him too much not to pay attention to his affections.

In the end, I’m not convinced by Zweig, but I am impressed with the exercise. In a way, Zweig’s project is no less romantic than Fersen’s: the construction of a monument to the woman they both seem to have loved, in their ways. If I am not moved by Antoinette herself, I am moved by their love.

And that’s not the worst fate in the world, is it? To be redeemed not by our own actions, but by the devotion of those that know and love us? Not a bad memorial, in the end.

Mao: A Life

By Philip Short

I’ve been wanting to read Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong for a while. I am, secretly, a sucker for historical biography, and I have a particular taste for humanity’s anti-heroes. I’ll brush right by biographies of inventors, statesmen, visionaries; my shelves are clogged with insane monarchs, conquerers, murderers and war-mongers.

Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary who would rule China for nearly 30 years, is a subject of intense fascination to those of us who like to peer into darkness. He is considered the greatest mass murderer of all time – it is possible that he is responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (high estimates place his death toll at around 80 million people). So Short’s biography was on my list.

It’s a great, whopping book: some 630 pages of dense biographical information. It’s beautifully presented: clear, thorough, persuasive. I learned a lot, but, having finished it, I find that I have been arrested by a single moment, and my emotional reaction to that moment has entirely dominated my impression of the book.

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong was a nobody from Hunan province. He moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He (Mao) wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read.  I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” (p. 83)

This passage, Mao’s recollections of being ignored by the intellectuals he so admired, is excerpted very early in Short’s biography. However, having finished it, I find that this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

That clerk would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that killed tens of millions of people.  He is, more than any other figure, the architect of China’s current global position. But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten.  

How many people do you interact with every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pump your gas, see you to your table, drive your Uber?

And those people, those are just the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

What if one of them will become Mao?

I’ve been disturbing myself with this concept for days now, rolling it around in my head.

Of course, it’s always unnerving to imagine that you might have been brushed by enormity. It’s disconcerting to imagine that history’s next great killer might be taking your order. But what’s even spookier, to me, is the fact that, later, when he was the Great Man, those men never even realized that they had met Mao. They would not have recollected his face, because we don’t remember people that don’t matter. They would never know that their lives had intersected with his, that they had slighted the man who would become Mao.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, Mao did not know he would become Mao. Maybe, if he had known, he would not have wanted to become Mao. We think of the great villains of history as born, but it is, of course, possible that they are made. The clerk in the Beijing University library would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but, in 1918, he had not yet.  And maybe he need not have.

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, Mao Zedong was inevitable. He would become the man we all know, would find his way to his role, would make space in history for himself.

But it is equally possible that he only might have become Mao. Perhaps Mao, as we know him, was the result of thousands of small accidents, the end product of innumerable coincidences. What if those moments hadn’t happened to him? What if they had happened to someone else? Perhaps many men might have become Mao – perhaps, under the right circumstances, most men.  Maybe history could make murderers of us all, if she chose.

Philip Short

This isn’t a movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters, like other freaks of nature, just happen: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues or nightmares?

I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me so badly. That there is no outcome in which I order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one. But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the future monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, even if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

By Katie Mack

In general, I don’t write about science books here. I read them, but because I work as a scientist, my reactions to them tend to be analytical and not emotional: am I persuaded by this argument? Do I find the statistics sound? Does the evidence agree with my understanding of the field? I evaluate them informationally, not experientially, and because this isn’t a science blog, I tend to avoid writing about them.

However, the further afield I go from my own field (biology), the more of a tourist I become. By the time I get to physics, I am completely without expertise of any kind – I am reading purely for enjoyment, to learn something new, to goggle stupidly at the complexity of the world.

Which means that my reactions to ‘The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)’ are entirely emotional. I have absolutely no ability to assess this information scientifically – it could be a pack of lies, for all I know. I’m just here for the ride.

Writing about science is really tricky. In science, accuracy is often a matter of considerable complexity, but complexity is antithetical to narrative. Therefore, works of popular science often reduce that complexity, simplifying for the sake of clarity. While this is frustrating for people who work in those fields, for whom the complexities are the point, it is required to make yourself understood to laypeople.

In the case of physics, this simplification usually means avoiding math. Most of the sort of far-out theoretical work involved in cosmology is all math; translations into common language are necessarily approximations at best. The more far-out the research, the more that this is true. And end-of-universe scenarios, advanced mathematical modeling of the Big Bang and other quantum phenomena, these things are as far-out and mathy as it gets.

Which makes what Katie Mack has done here all the more impressive. Mack is a cosmologist, and ‘The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)’ is her survey of current theories about…the end of the universe. Will the expansion of the universe slow and reverse itself, bringing all matter collapsing back into itself, obliterating existence itself in a backwards Big Bang? Or does the expansion continue, pulling galaxies and solar systems and planets and finally matter itself apart? Or does the universe just dissolve into entropic chaos?

I loved this book. First of all, it’s a fucking great science book. Mack is an excellent science writer: she balances science, hard science, with clarity, and she balances it well. I can’t think of tougher material to translate for a lay-audience than extreme math-based astrophysics, and she nails it. I didn’t understand everything, but I understand a hell of a lot more than I would have if anyone else had tried to explain it to me.

“We already have astronomical all-sky surveys that are capable of measuring the positions and motions of billions of stars within our own galaxy. As the Big Rip approaches, we start to notice that the stars on the edges of the galaxy are not coming around in their expected orbits, but instead drifting away like guests at a party at the end of an evening. Soon after, our night sky begins to darken, as the great Milky Way swath across the sky fades. The galaxy is evaporating.

From this point, the destruction picks up its pace. We begin to find that the orbits of the planets are not what they should be, but are instead slowly spiraling outward. Just months before the end, after we’ve lost the outer planets to the great and growing blackness, the Earth drifts away from the Sun, and the Moon from the Earth. We too enter the darkness, alone.” (p. 113)

I want to highlight in particular Mack’s instinct for when to give context. Most science writers start from first principles, usually in the form of an intro chapter on the basic vocab, processes, or concepts which inform all the subsequent work. This can be really useful, but it’s often counter-productive. If you don’t understand why you’re learning the vocab, it can be hard to remember or understand it. Later, when you encounter the concepts for which you needed that intro, you have to keep going back through pages and reminding yourself of those intro concepts. It’s clunky.

Katie Mack

Mack doesn’t do that. She opts to give you context as you go, snagging you with a scary sentence or idea, then pulling back to give you the physics you need to parse it. Her rhythm is pretty perfect: she never front-loads the science too far in advance, and she never lets you go too far into a topic without the science you need to understand it. It’s really well done.

Excellent science writing aside, though, I also loved this book emotionally. It’s strangely refreshing, at this moment in time, to think about the end of the universe. Which is not to say that it is entirely unstressful, contemplating the obliteration not only of the entire world, but also of the physical laws which govern existence itself. It’s a little sobering, if I’m honest, a little bleak.

But it puts everything (and I do mean everything) into perspective: my plans for dinner, my irritating coworker, my next vacation, my relationship, my net worth, my own inevitable death, the inevitable deaths of everyone I love, of my very planet. In the end, I found it relaxing, zooming out that far. It’s hard to sustain local stress when you discover that, ultimately, the universe ends in perfect entropy.

It’s lovely, in a way. It throws your own life into sharp relief: there is no “forever”, not on a cosmic scale. No matter what you create, what you change in this world, what happens to you, what monuments you build, given a long enough timeline, every trace of your existence will vanish into nothing. When time itself has ceased to exist, legacy is a meaningless concept.

I will admit: I read this book on a beach, which probably informed my reaction, but, truthfully, this book left me feeling pleasantly, nihilistically zen: if we’re all just hurtling towards the heat death of the universe (which, thanks to Mack’s lucidity, I am 100% convinced we are), why worry? I see no reason why I should not have a little more fun with my own personal eye-blink of an existence.

There is relief in being able to credibly tell yourself that absolutely nothing matters. And it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that nothing matters when you have some science to back it up. So, my gift to you: nothing matters. I’ve read the book, it’s science, it’s official. Cheer up.

The Premonition

By Michael Lewis

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Sometimes, I encounter books that I should want to read, because they are good or about something interesting or whatever, but I avoid reading them because they stress me out. I know that they are worth reading – I just don’t want to read them because the idea of reading them makes me feel bad.

Most of these books fall into the category of ‘Books About Things Happening Right Now In The World That Are Important And True But That You Cannot Personally Change Or Do Anything About And So You Just Have To Live With Them Even Though They Are Terrible‘. I really don’t like books in this category, and I know that that is cowardly and self-indulgent and babyish, I know that, but I still avoid those books like the plague.

And, yes, I know that staying abreast of what’s happening in the world is part of being a responsible and learned adult, I know that we all live in a global society and that we have an obligation to face unpleasant facts about the world, to look around us with our eyes open and see what is, I know that!

But sometimes I don’t want to, OK? Sometimes I don’t want to keep endlessly informing myself about all the horrible, insoluble shit that is going on around me all the time. Sometimes, I want to chill the fuck out and watch ‘The Witcher’ and not confront the endless parade of threats to the world order!

But my mom gave me ‘The Premonition’ and because I really like Michael Lewis and my mom, I read it.

‘The Premonition’ is basically the story of a couple of people operating at the fringes of the United States government who have, for the past two decades or so, been trying to prepare us all for a pandemic they believed was inevitable. There are really only two heroes in this book: Charity Dean, an apparently unerring California public health MD, and a VA doctor named Carter Mecher, who is perfect like Dean but lacks her charisma. The villain is the CDC. If ‘The Premonition’ is to be believed, the CDC is essentially a collected group of craven ineffectuals, people so selfish that they would rather let Americans die than take a brave stand on anything at all. People so political that they end being, functionally if not morally, pro-disease.

And, look, it’s a pretty good story. I don’t know that it’s his best book, but it’s totally standard Michael Lewis fare: smart individuals revolutionizing (or trying to revolutionize) archaic and unwieldy systems. Well-executed reporting, clear explaining, zippy prose, interesting characters.

Great.

And I know that what I’m about to say is not, like, an intelligent response, but here’s the thing: I do not want to read about the pandemic. I am living through the pandemic – I don’t want to read books about it right now. I especially don’t want to read books about how it all might have been handled differently, if only we had all been smarter or better prepared or had listened to better, braver, smarter people. I do not want to read about what might have been, if only, if only. Not right now.

To be fair to the pandemic, there are other things wrong with ‘The Premonition’. The stress I am experiencing is in a large part due to Michael Lewis’s approach to the world in general. I like Lewis, I really do, but he does have a sort of Manichean worldview. He loves eccentrics and mavericks – he hates bureaucracies and conservatism.

And, forgive me, but that’s not a super brave or original point of view. Most people have more innate sympathy for mavericks than they do for massive government bureaucracies, it’s obvious. David and Goliath stories are innately appealing, but they are also stories, and the real world is almost always more complicated.

And, sure, nuance doesn’t make for good airplane reading, I get that, but we are living through this pandemic in real time, and I think it’s a little bit dickish to write an entire book which basically asserts that hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved if only we had all listened to two semi-obscure public servants.

I would never, ever, claim that the United States handled the pandemic perfectly, or even well. I would also never claim that the CDC is a flawless organization. There is no such thing as a flawless organization, and no one with any experience or maturity expects there to be.

But counterfactuals are a favorite tool of the weak-minded. The truth is, we do not know what might have happened if we had (as Lewis seems to wish) turned the entire workings of the United States government over to one plucky blonde public health officer from California. We cannot ever know what would have happened, and so implying that we would have been saved is irresponsible and arrogant.

Also, not to belabor this point too much, but the pandemic is not over – none of us know fully what happened yet, so we do not how we might have be helped in the end. Monday morning quarterbacking is annoying at the best of times – doing it before the game is even over is extra obnoxious.

Michael Lewis

Honestly, this book irritated me. Not because it was bad (it wasn’t), or because it was boring (it wasn’t), or because it was wrong (I have no idea whether or not it was). It irritated me because, while I think it’s fine for authors to simplify things to make them more intelligible or cinematic, I don’t think it’s OK to do it in real time, to events that are happening to real people. The pandemic has caused global distress, sickness and death. It has killed millions; it has disfigured the lives of people all over the world.

Most people, not all but most, tried to do their best during Covid. But a global pandemic is a massively complex phenomenon, and reducing that complexity in order to create heroes for your book is unhelpful. I get that Lewis has a real thing for Charity Dean, that is clear (I would bet my life savings she’s pretty), but that is not a reason to vilify everyone who isn’t her.

Isn’t the world hard enough as it is, right now, without embellishing? We might need heroes, but we don’t need false idols. And we have villains enough – creating more, even to give your heroes more lustre, is damaging.

Lewis is a storyteller, and this is what storytellers do: they pull narratives out of complexity. Fine. And ‘The Premonition’ is a good narrative. But I think it distorts reality in order to sound better, and I think that’s pretty unforgivable at the moment.

The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux

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I don’t think I’ve ever written about a travel book here.

Which is not to say that I don’t read travel books – I do, and I really love some. But, as a genre, travel writing is tricky – there are many potential pitfalls, and the genre itself only appeals to a small percentage of readers. This is understandable to me: if you don’t care about travel, then why read about someone else doing it? And if you do care about travel, why would you read about someone else doing it when you could simply do it yourself?

There is the additional problem that “travel writing” has changed dramatically with the advent of travel blogs. And, look, the genre wasn’t perfect before: it was almost exclusively cranky white male writers, swerving from place to place, getting drunk and sneering at the locals. There is often a racist tinge to the observations made (if not forthrightly expressed racism), and many travel books are really just glorified memoirs of middle-aged ennui.

But the genre has not been helped in any way, shape, or form by the proliferation of the modern travel blog, which is as execrable a form as I’ve ever encountered. If the classics of travel writing are navel-gazing memoirs of aging white guys, the travel blog is the fatuous spewing of indiscriminate and totally uncredentialed millennials: people too insubstantial to hold a job, paid by the Instagram post, gushing patronizing about local color and custom with a tone so condescending that it is barely less racist than the older prose model. All, also, white.

So, ok, I don’t write about travel writing. But I would like to talk today about one book – really, one author – because I love him. And I don’t love him because he’s perfect, or because he doesn’t fall into any of the traps of his genre (he does). I love him because he is mean.

Paul Theroux, I believe, identifies primarily as a novelist, but he is more famous as a travel writer (indeed, he perhaps the most famous travel writer alive). He has published something like twenty travel books in his life. I have not read them all, but I have read a substantial fraction. They possess a certain uniformity: Theroux meanders from place to place, all over the world, peering around him with his gimlet eye, often grouchy but occasionally enchanted, always alone and yet somehow unendingly entangled with the locals.

I’ve loved Theroux since I read ‘Riding the Iron Rooster‘ when I was a teenager. That book changed my life – it is why I went to Asia for the first time. It is why I took the Trans-Siberian – it is why, when I went to China, I took trains between cities, and not planes. ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ is about a different journey Theroux took by train through Asia in the early 1970’s. And perhaps that doesn’t sound promising to you – I’m the wrong person to ask: I love Asia, I love trains, and I love mean people.

And Theroux is wonderfully mean. But not in a directed, hostile, agentive way – rather, he is casually, undogmatically malicious, and I love that about him. There is something deeply honest about his descriptions of the world: Theroux would never pretend to love a place to promote it on Insta. Much of the world is shitty – ugly places inhabited by cretinous individuals – and he calls it so. This willingness to snipe has two effects: 1. When he says something is wonderful, I believe him; and 2. His writing is funny in the way only meanness can be.

I can hear people howling that watching a white guy wander around the world being mean about everything isn’t amusing or wonderful. Fair enough – but let me try to explain. Meanness, like anything sharp, must be handled with care, but it is not without its uses and benefits. The truth is, every society has its nastinesses, its ridiculousness, pettinesses and absurdities, individual and yet universal. And if we don’t acknowledge them, it doesn’t mean anything when we praise what isn’t nasty, ridiculous, petty or absurd. Meanness can be gratuitous, but it can also be honest, and it takes a steady hand to navigate the difference.

Let me see if I can provide a few examples.

In Siberia:

“Bruce and Jeff, the Australians in the upper bunks, were nervous about going to Siberia. Anders, a young Swede carbuncular, with one of those unthawed Scandinavian faces that speaks of sexual smugness and a famished imagination, was in the bunk opposite. He listened to the Australians, and when he said, “Hey, I hear it’s cold in Siberia,” I knew it would be a rough crossing.” (p. 304)

On Vietnam:

Paul Theroux (a long time ago)

“There were really two selling points, the beaches and the war. But the war was still on, in spite of the fact that nowhere in the forty-four-page booklet entitled Visit Viet-Nam was fighting mentioned, except the oblique statement, “English is making rapid progress under the pressure of contemporary events,'” (p. 244)

Or perhaps my favorite single observation in the entire book:

“‘I am in Istanbul two years before,’ said the French woman, wincing in the way the French do before lapsing into their own language.” (p. 11)

Theroux, after all these years, has a very steady hand. He is mean, but without anger. He has contempt not for whole cultures or peoples, but for individual small and stupid people within them, and for the havoc they wreak on the world. And the world itself he overwhelmingly finds fascinating, broad and surprising.

I don’t think Theroux is a cruel man – these are not cruel quotes. Rather, he has a gift for spotting and summarizing the absurd. He is a hard-minded man who has found an unusual balance between curiosity and skepticism. I don’t think I would love someone who was just cruel. And Theroux is much too dedicated a traveller to be motivated entirely, or even primarily, by animus. He is as dedicated and brave a traveller as there is – no one wanders so long, so far, just to meet people upon whom they look down.

I wanted to write about Theroux’s travel books at least once, here, because I am grateful to him, in the way that I am grateful to all authors who have changed my life. He made the world bigger for me, and he made me laugh, and I’d like to thank him.

The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

How To Become A Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I love mean people.

I mention that only because I try, before I talk about a book, to give all relevant disclaimers, to announce any prejudices which may skew my otherwise pristine critical faculties.  And, before I discuss ‘How to Become a Scandal‘, I need to disclaim: I love mean people. I am predisposed to enjoy them, to enjoy the things that they say, especially if they are mean AND funny.

Laura Kipnis is mean.  And Laura Kipnis is funny.  Laura Kipnis is mean AND funny.

How to Become a Scandal‘ is an ontology of modern American scandals.  Kipnis discusses only four scandals, but she discusses them in depth: Lisa Nowak, the jilted astronaut who drove through the night to pepper spray the woman for whom her boyfriend left her; Sol Wachtler, the appellate judge who created several fake identities in order to harass and extort the woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; Linda Tripp, the “friend” who secretly taped Monika Lewinsky talking about her affair with Bill Clinton; and James Frey, the “memoirist” who was found to have fabricated many of the most interesting details of his book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’.

Kipnis reviews these scandals, reminding (or educating us) about the most important details of the cases, but she’s really interested in understanding them: why did these people behave in such outrageous and self-destructive ways?  How do they understand their own actions?  And why, in a world full of bad actors, do we find ourselves outraged only by some?  What allows some bad behavior to fly under the radar while some catches fire in our imagination and becomes a scandal?  And are we wicked to enjoy it?

I think I can admit that I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ thoroughly.  It feels like an admission because Kipnis is prurient and salacious and, well, mean: she loves scandals, all the grubby little details which we are supposed to pretend aren’t interesting to us.  She cops to participating in the worst of our cultural rubbernecking, of gloating about the misfortunes of others, of reveling in the sick and sexy revelations which so often accompany these tempests.  As I began the book, I was worried that I was basically going to be reading a gossip column dressed up in a little cultural analysis.

I gave Kipnis too little credit.  First of all, she’s smart.  She’s really quite smart, actually, and her analysis is motivated by a genuine desire to understand.  Her gaze is unflinching, and she spares no one, not even herself: she is much more interested in what scandals say about the people who follow them than about the people who cause them.

And I think her analysis is fruitful: I learned things from this book, not facts, but new ways of thinking about my culture, about its winners and its losers.  She has altered my perspective, slightly perhaps, but I am old and jaded, and it takes a lot to move my needle even a little.

“Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren’t their problem alone.  It’s the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam.  Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson – there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy…” (p. 6)

She’s actually a pretty good writer, too.  She manages to parse some pretty subtle social theory, and be funny while doing it, which is not an easy feat.  And while her colloquialisms grate a little, and her prose tends towards the frenetic, she manages to be readable without sacrificing IQ points, which is a rare quality in a popular writer.

“We know the sentiments are mass produced, we also know the emotions we need to sustain us can’t be packaged, yet with the Oprahfication of the culture, triteness is our fate: it saturates the culture and our lives.  What’s at issue isn’t the market or mass media, neither of which appear to be going away any time soon, it’s the flattening out of experience and the vacancies it leaves all of us to manage, each in our own improvised ways.  If every scandal exposes underlying social contradictions, the commerce in selfhood is the subtext of this one.  The question we’d want to ask is whether her talent at monetizing authenticity really gives Oprah the moral high ground over James Frey.” (p. 189)

Or how about this excerpt, which is so sharp that everyone gets cut in it:

“Poor Linda [Tripp], so perilously poised at the intersection of two indelible forms of social failure.  Guilty of terribly betraying a friend, an egregious act in a culture that reviles a stool pigeon as the lowest of the low, and lacking the requisite allure in the visual department, she was the bearer of two varieties of social disgrace, each refracted through the magnifying lens of the other.  No doubt the combination licensed the barely repressed violence of the jokes, the quality of atavistic aggression, every punch line like  a hard right cross to the kisser.  Though you couldn’t help noting that physical attractiveness on the part of the tellers of ugliness jokes was not a prerequisite, which is curious in itself: did the jokesters think they were granted an exception from their own aesthetic standards by virtue of Tripp’s moral failures, or were somehow inoculated from similar judgements by the power of their jokes?” (p. 131)

The above quote also illustrates the other thing, mentioned previous, which I really loved about Kipnis: her meanness.

Laura Kipnis

That might sound weird, but I believe that I can defend meanness.  The truth is, there are some topics that we cannot discuss without it.  I am not advocating for gratuitous or sadistic meanness, for the taking of genuine pleasure in the suffering of another.  I am advocating for the willingness to say, to speak aloud, truths or conclusions about our fellow men which would wound them if they were heard, which we would not normally utter in polite conversation, which we would not say to our friends.  It is impossible to explain ugly things without speaking ugly truths, and as long as there are ugly things in the world, meanness will be a necessity of understanding.

The case of Linda Tripp is a perfect case in point: Kipnis makes a persuasive argument that the public outcry about Linda Tripp, the reaction to her, her scandal, cannot be understood without also acknowledging her personal ugliness.  That the nation recoiled in disgust at what they perceived as a creature without redeeming characteristics, either moral or aesthetic.  She is not justifying that reaction – she is chronicling it.  But, if scandal is the phenomenon of public outrage, and the public is outraged by ugly women (and there are mountains and mountains of rather soul-shriveling evidence that they are), then any discussion of the public’s reaction to Linda Tripp which pussy-foots around her ugliness is disingenuous at best.

I think, at the end of the day, that is why I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ so much, why I will almost certainly now read her other books: because she is brave.  She’s smart, and mean, and funny, yeah, but she uses those qualities in the service of her goal, which is to understand something ugly about us.  And I always believe that looking ugliness in the eye is a valid goal.

And, at least in my case, she achieved that goal.  I admire books which are sneaky about their smarts, books which you think are going to salacious and gossipy, but which actually make you wiser before you even notice it’s happening.  Laura Kipnis has hidden her acuity well – the dust jacket of her book is hot pink, for heaven’s sake! But it’s there, deep and sharp.  And I believe that it takes a mean, sharp analysis to understand what it is mean and sharp in us, to understand things like our bloodlust, our endless capacity to enjoy seeing each other brought low.  I think it needed someone like Kipnis to understand something like scandal.  And I loved it.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.