Brief Looks at Books  -  2013
September 6, 2013:  The Wire and Philosophy

I’ve gradually come to realize that much of what I know comes not only from buying and reading books, but also from browsing in book stores, where I’ll often choose a particular book and glance through it for a quarter-hour, or so. The curious thing is, fifteen minutes is often enough to show me that I’ve got pretty much what a book offers. Even in cases when I would like to read more, I generally find that quick skimming has given me the main point the book is trying to get across.

I’m reminded that Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest bookmen of all time, claimed that he seldom read the whole of books. When talk of a book came up among friends and acquaintances, he would ask, “Did you read it all the way through?” and when he was told that someone had, he indicated considerable disbelief. The truth is, none of us knows what another person means when there’s a claim a book has been read.

My chief weakness in skimming books - which I’d like to repair to some extent -- is failure to fix what I’ve learned in my mind. Often, I’ll recall that I saw a book on a certain topic, and even be able to say what the argument was. But I’ll remember neither the author or title. I hate that sort of sloppiness in myself. I’m starting this page to try to get better at firming up recollection of the books I’ve held in my hands.

I’ll begin with yesterday, when I was in the Barnes and Noble, at the Harbour Center in Annapolis. In the far back right corner I found a little book titled, The Wire and Philosophy: This America, Man, edited by David Bzdak, Joanna Crosby, and Seth Vannatta. It was published this year by Open Court and costs $19.95. I also discovered it’s part of the series, Popular Culture and Philosophy, directed by the general editor George Reisch. There are now 74 volumes in the series, and it is still growing. There are books on Sherlock Holmes, Star Wars, Breaking Bad, and on and on.

It may seem silly to try to relate serious philosophy to such topics, but if The Wire and Philosophy is a fair example, these are thoughtful attempts to show that any sort of melodrama is bound to contain philosophic themes, and that if you’ll keep these themes in mind, TV shows and movies can become something more than mindless entertainment.

I have not watched The Wire. I knew of it only as a crime drama about Baltimore, but as this book makes clear, the stories are not just about crime but about how an entire city works together, and about how people from supposedly disparate walks of life end up having considerable effect on one another. Even more important, the series illuminates, over and again, the tension between quality of life and length of life, and plays with the Socratic teaching that the former is far more important than the latter, even though most people don’t grasp that simple fact.

I doubt that I’ll ever read the whole of The Wire and Philosophy, and I may not watch any of the television series. But when I hear people talk about episodes they liked -- or didn’t like -- I’ll have some sense of the context out of which their comments are coming. Also, when I know that President Obama said, “The best Wire character? It’s got to be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right?” It causes me to suspect that if I’ll take time to find out more about Omar, I find out more about the president. That might help with what for me, right now, is one of the biggest political mysteries.

All that’s probably worth fifteen minutes. Right?

September 7, 2013:  A First Rate Madness

After coffee and a maple walnut scone at the same Barnes and Noble I mentioned in my previous posting, I wandered out into book world, and found myself at the psychology shelves. Almost immediately I noticed a paperback by Nassir Ghaemi titled A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.

Mr. Ghaemi is convinced he has found a link between certain forms of mental trouble and effective political leadership in times of crisis. He also suspects the opposite, that is an affinity between thorough normality and ineptitude. His prime example of the latter is George W. Bush, who, you will remember, was often spoken of as a regular guy, the sort of man you would like to have a beer with (I confess, I never grasped that desire).

The eight figures he adduces in support of his main thesis are William T. Sherman, Ted Turner, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. They all had unbalances, Ghaemi says, which gave them the ability to imagine and feel the human effects of the issues with which they contended. My sense is that Ghaemi is on to something, but that he may be using his definitions in ways many would find unfamiliar. What he’s actually talking about are emotions and understandings that go deeper than average persons are presumed to experience, and that sometimes evince themselves as mental disturbance.

Several reviewers have spoken of the book as a new form of psychohistory, but Ghaemi rejects the term. He says psychohistory is grounded in psychoanalysis, for which he has little respect. In fact, he makes a rather startling comment about the Freudian art: “Only in the past two decades has psychoanalysis been put in its proper place -- not simply discarded but seen as unnecessary and insufficient in itself.”

The mental “disorder” Ghaemi usually links with political genius is what’s now called a bipolar disturbance, in other words, the habit of feeling both great elation and severe depression. It’s true that when this fluctuates radically it can become disabling, but I think most of us recognize that some degree of it necessary for extraordinary performance.  What this book seems to be actually about is a redefinition of how we think about mental health. The flat, steady, never-varying everydayness we have formerly conceived as the essence of mental stability is really just another way of identifying stupidity. The word Ghaemi uses to define such persons is “homoclite,” and he says that they don’t often fail but when they do they learn little. Presumably they don’t fail because they don’t try for much.

I, myself, have felt for some time we need an enhanced definition of sanity and so I was happy to find this book as an effort in that direction. It is well-written and compelling

Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.

September 8, 2013:  At the Christiana Mall

Driving north on IS 95 yesterday, we decided to get coffee and muffins at the nearly new Delaware rest stop (I guess it opened about a year ago). We have stopped there several times and found it spacious and pleasant. But yesterday, it was overwhelmed with people. After eyeing the long lines at concessions, and the impossible line at Starbucks, we saw a billboard advertising the Christiana Mall, just two miles farther north. So we decided to try it out.

Getting there wasn’t too difficult. We parked off the end of the Macy’s store, and after wending our way through an astounding number of aisles, made it to the mall itself. Following signs to the food court, we discovered it was flanked on one side by a Barnes and Noble. We went in to test its coffee shop and happily discovered it wasn’t crowded at all. And, then, after our small repast (which was refreshing in a standard way), we set out to browse a bit.

I wanted to look at a book my daughter is reading for her writing course -- Eric Kandel’s Age of Insight. The inventory screen at the store told me the book was in stock, but, alas, a careful search through the psychology section taught me once again that computers are not always right. So, for the moment, I’ve had to be content with the Amazon page. I’ve seen enough there to let me know this is a book I should read. Almost all the reviewers there found it an enthralling study.

I wandered around a bit, looking for items worthy of my customary quarter-hour. None came immediately to light. I did, however, spend a few minutes each on two separate volumes: Evan J. Mandary, A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America and Roy and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England.

The first reminded me that in the 1970s, the United States seemed to be on the same course as all other at least partially civilized nations. The Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s death penalty law in 1972, and most observers thought the ruling would constitute the demise of state killing of helpless persons. But they didn’t reckon with the punitive and vengeful character of the American people. Georgia rewrote its law to get around the Court’s objections, and four years after capital punishment seemed to be on the way out, the states were back in the killing business, a practice they have continued right till today. There is nothing that makes the United States more an outlier, and despised, nation than this savage legal behavior. I have talked with people from other countries who expressed complete bewilderment about why Americans want to hold onto it. And all I have been able to offer by way of explanation is that they like it.

There really is only one question about state killing: “Do you like it or don’t you?” All other arguments about its effectiveness, its so-called justice, its preventative character and so forth are pure fluff.

The second book is an example of the lesson that if you want to attract readers to a book that has anything to do with England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, you just attach Jane Austen’s name to it. The Adkins’ effort strikes me as a fairly competent social history, and they do illustrate it with a few instances from Jane Austen’s life, the trial of her aunt for shoplifting, for example. But mostly it’s just a decent historical effort, but one that probably would get virtually no attention if it weren’t for the link to the famed author.

By now, if you have glanced at my first three entries to the “Brief Looks at Books” page, you know that I’m not going to talk only about the books themselves, but where and I how I encounter them. I’ve believed for a long while now that reading is a far more complicated endeavor than most people take it to be, and that the setting in which a text is first met, has an influence on how it presents itself to a reader. So, I’m going to include places as well at titles.

To experience the Christiana Mall is, itself, a gigantic influence, but one so convoluted I’ll have to leave it to another time.

©John R. Turner

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