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

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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.

Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I imagine that one of the drawbacks of being a journalist that is that, in real life, villains are thin on the ground.

Bad BloodWriters of fiction can conjure a villain whenever they want, and drape him in the accoutrement of evil.  He can wear a poisoner’s ring; his literal fangs can drip literal blood; flowers can wilt at his approach – no problem at all for a writer of fiction.

But journalists are, at least hypothetically, bounded by truth, and the truth is: most humans are not villains.  None are perfect, most are complicated, many are bad, but very, very few are truly wicked.

There are exceptions, of course.  Every once and a while, a thorough-going monster hoves into view, and a lucky journalist discovers it.  I can only imagine that those discoveries are the journalistic scoops of a lifetime, the exposure of a real-life Iago in our midst.

Which makes me suspect that John Carreyrou must have just about shit a brick when he realized that he had discovered one.  He seems like a Very Serious Journalist, so I’m sure he was super professional about it, but I’ll bet that, in his secret heart of hearts, when he realized what it was that he had found, he did little, private journalistic leaps for joy.

Because he found a genuine villain.  A real one.  He discovered a villain, and he discovered her when everyone else thought that she was hot stuff.  He exposed her.

I remember when the Wall Street Journal published their first Theranos exposé.  It was the first I had heard of Theranos, but I remember thinking that the description of the technology sounded…optimistic.  I remember wondering about Elizabeth Holmes, about whether, if the Wall Street Journal allegations were true, she had known.  CEOs often do not know about the specific actions of their scientific staff, I knew.  Perhaps she had been ignorant.

She was not.

Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes

Bad Blood‘ is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company that she founded, Theranos.  Theranos’ mission statement was simple: comprehensive, rapid blood-testing from finger-pricks, rather than intravenous blood-draws.  Holmes had a fear of needles, as she famously explained during pitches, and she wanted to spare patients the stress of them.  She wanted to make blood-drawing so quick, so painless, that no one ever lost a loved one to a condition which might have been caught by a blood test.

At no point during its existence did Theranos possess the technology to do this.  However, their lack did not stop Holmes from promising her investors that they did, from producing prototypes, from entering into partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, and from testing on patients.  At its peak, Theranos was valued at over $50 billion, and was running tests in Walgreens on actual humans.

I’m not sure quite how to express how convincing, unrelenting, and shocking ‘Bad Blood‘ is.  Even for a cynical person (which I am), the amount of bad faith, of systematic dishonesty, displayed by Holmes and her vice-president (and boyfriend) Sunny Balwani, was enormous.

And, what’s worse, when their employees called them on it, told them that their machines couldn’t meet quality controls, or that their results couldn’t be replicated, weren’t matching the control samples, they fired those employees, threatened them with lawsuits, and even, in some cases, blackmailed them.

Perhaps you find it slightly incredible that a book about what is, essentially, a medical device company lying about the precision of blood tests would be fascinating.  But fascinating isn’t even an adequate term – this is a page-turner.  ‘Page-turner’ is an over-used term, so I would like to take just a second to explore what that term is actually supposed to mean, to explain how I am using it.

A page-turner is a book which demands that you turn its pages.  Some books you move in and out of at leisure, it is up to you whether you are reading them or not.  You may love them, and appreciate them very much, but they don’t call to you when they’re closed.

John Carreyrou
John Carreyrou

But some books are not up to you.  Some books require a sort of devil’s bargain: once you start them, they own you until you finish them.  They shout at you when you’re not with them, and you move through your life with half your mind, because the other half of your mind is forever grasping back to where you left the book.

That’s what ‘page-turner’ means – it means that it isn’t up to you who turns the pages.  And ‘Bad Blood‘ is a page-turner by that definition.

(And a contagion – I read it when a friend from my old lab at MIT told me that she had read it in one sitting, when she insisted that I read it.  I read it in one sitting on a train to visit my parents – when I disembarked, I told my mother about it, and she then spent that evening reading late into the night.  She had finished it when I woke up the next morning.  I have given it to at least three people since.)

I should be clear: partly, ‘Bad Blood‘ is so absorbing because it isn’t really a book, not in the artistic sense of the word.  It’s a case for the prosecution.  Carreyrou is a good journalistic writer; his prose conveys information without getting in the way.  His meticulousness shines through the words – he is totally convincing.  He is also, I think, furious (the last section of the book details Holmes’ attempt to destroy him personally), and that also shines through the words.  But, in this case, words and personality don’t equal literature – they equal a plot, a gripping story, one of those rare books which is more like a movie than printed word.

And, because I believe that it is true, I recommend it highly.  These examples of far-out villainy, they are rare in real life.  We are lucky in that.  But, it is rarer still that they are so well-documented, so thoroughly illuminated and detailed.  And we are even luckier in that, when it happens.  Because, rare though they are, they are real, and it’s worth taking a real hard look at them, every once and a while.

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.