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The August List

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It’s the first of September, so I owe the blog this, and the comments on this.

This was August–and yes, I know, I haven’t gotten around to the Aquinas commentary yet.

The list:

 48) Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. (rr)

 49) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Inferno.

50) Paul Hoffman. The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth.

 51) Joseph Epstein. Snobbery: The American Version. (rr)

 52) Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. (rr)

 53) Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Runaway Corpse.

54) Bruce Catton. Terrible Swift Sword.

55) Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Blonde Bonanza.

p) George Steiner. “Archives of Eden.”

Anyway, some notes on this I haven’t already commented on:

The Paul Hoffman book claims to be a biography of Paul Erdos, but it isn’t, really–it’s more like a free form exposition of how mathematicians do math.

One of the things in Steiner’s essay (“Archives of Eden,” end of the list, look at yesterday’s blog post) I thought he got right was the part about how the Doing Good Bureaucrats–including especially teachers and psychologists and social workers–tend to “diagnose” high levels of creativity as “autism,” and if you look at the way most of the people in this book behave, you can see that that is exactly what would happen if they were coming up through American schools now.

They are all, also, incredibly interesting people I’d really like to know, and they would make terrific role models in the sense of presenting the fact (and it is fact) that not being like everybody else can be a very good thing.

You’d never get the book by the CPS people and the school board, though, because these very successful people don’t behave the way the Powers That Be have decreed that one must in order to be able to do anything.

Erdos himself, for instance, one of the greatest mathematicians in the history of the world and one of the ones with the most influence on modern mathematics, kept himself productive and creative well past the age when most mathematicians run out of ideas by consuming a steady diet of various forms of speed.

Once, having been charged by one of his friends with being a drug addict, he left off the speed cold turkey for three months.

At the end of that time, he announced that he hadn’t had a single mathematical idea in the entire period and that therefore not using the drugs was counterproductive, and went back to taking them.

I think this is fascinating on a number of levels–although I already knew that some people find drugs to be performance enhancing rather than otherwise.  Witness Coleridge, among others.

But speed is, if I’m remembering this correctly, one of the drugs that can cause an actual addiction–that old fashioned definition where your body has to give up a vital function and let the drug do it instead.

Meaning that if you try to ditch the drug cold turkey, you kill yourself.

With speed–I’m dredging this up from a LONG time ago–it’s the adrenal gland that shuts off.

Although apparently not in Erdos.

Or maybe all that stuff they taught me in college was wrong.

At any rate, it’s an interesting book, with interesting people, and I understood maybe a third of the math.

The Joseph Epstein book on snobbery is, well, peculiar.

It’s not the first time I’ve read it, and I found I had the same response to it this time that I had the last.

I think everybody everywhere is guilty of some form of snobbery in some area.  Some people care about birth and breeding.  Some people care about obscure science fiction stories or unappreciated Nascar drivers.

But snobbery on the scale and with the intensity described in this book is only what I can call…a lot of work.

A LOT of work.

I mean, for God’s sake. 

The man wrote the book using himself as an example a lot of the time, so I have to assume people like this actually exist in the real world, but if they do, I want to know how they get anything else done.

It is apparently possible to subject every area of your life to micomanaging rules and regulations that are never written down anywhere but that “everybody knows.”

Except, apparently, me.

Epstein and I don’t move in the same circles, of course, so it’s possible I know another set of rules and am just not aware of it–but the stuff as presented here is so complicated, I’m not sure I could know a comparable set of rules without knowing I knew them.

If that makes sense.

The first time I read this book–more than a decade ago–it did have one effect on me.

Epstein goes on at length about the absolute no-no of having one of those school or college stickers on your car. 

I have never forgotten it.  And although I never have put stickers on my cars–weird bumperstickers sometimes, but not the school and college ones–I always think of Epstein when I see the cars of people who do.

I have no idea why that would have stuck when nothing else about the book did.

In the end, I think if you asked me for a recommendation about a book about snobbery, I wouldn’t pick this one, but David Brooks’s Bobos In Paradise.

That one’s a lot of fun.

Bruce Catton’s Terrible Swift Sword is volume 2 in his three volume centennial history of the American Civil War.  Volume 1 is back there on the list a few months ago.

About this volume, I can only say this:  I can barely figure out how we managed to have an American Civil War, considering the amount of time the soldiers and their leaders spent wandering around lost in unfamiliar landscapes.

And not just wandering around lost.

My favorite figure in the case of characters in this volume is a Confederate general named Zollicoffer, who went charging up to what he was convinced was a unit of his own men in the middle of a battle.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that he was incredibly nearsighted, he made a mistake and the unit he went charging into was actually made up of soldiers on the Union side.  They shot him dead.

As marvelously amusing as this was, it was by no means the worst thing anyone did in these early battles.  At one point, the two top Confederate generals in charge of a defense–both of them civilians who were appointed to the brass as soon as the war started, but who had no real military experience–just got up and went home as soon as the battle got thick, leaving their third in command to fix the mess.

In the meantime, on the Union side, Generals Halleck and McClennon weren’t running away from battles so much as they weren’t bothering to engage in them at all.

If everybody had done everything right, the war would have been over in 1862 and slavery would still be with us.

Instead, the Confederates had a competent general, Robert E. Lee, who was in charge.

The Union also had a competent general, Ulysses S. Grant, but nobody was giving him anything really serious to do.


Anyway, that’s the list, and the month, and I’m going to go put on Thelonious Monk and Coltrane in the one CD I have of them playing together.


Written by janeh

September 1st, 2013 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The August List'

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  1. “Or maybe all that stuff they taught me in college was wrong.”

    Have confidence, I’m sure SOME of what they taught you in college was right. After all, some of what they taught me in college was right–just a lot smaller percentage than they’d like to admit to.

    Snobbery. I’m not sure about the “lot of work.” Think of all the time you save by having a rule for everything instead of thinking it through from first principles. I suppose this is one gets the full Torah instead of just eh Decalogue or the whole New Testament instead of just the “first and greatest commandment.” But I agree: every culture or sub-culture has snobbery about something, and an excuse to look down on people. (Kovalic published the gaming hierarchy once, and I’ve seen bits of the model railroad one.)

    Yes, of course. If I’m expected to micromanage people and “build character” rather than teach English and Math, then the obvious thing is to remake everyone in my image. You could get around this by having a wider variety of people in CPS and school boards, but that’s so unlikely I think we’d better focus on restraining CPS and refocusing the schools on academics. Those are going to be difficult enough.

    Catton. Yeah, a lot of war looks like that, and the Civil War had an unusually low percentage of trained people going in–no one used to the level at which they were now operating. And there’s the old wargaming complaint that in real life you can’t see the commander’s rating. Everyone has good and bad days, and it takes a while to realize that McClellan will never be as good as he was in western Virginia, not Lee as bad–and that the Grant of Henry and Donelson was the “real” Grant and Shiloh the fluke, instead of the other way around.

    There’s a book titled THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MILITARY INCOMPETENCE, which points out how often some disaster resulted, not from the appointment of some known idiot, but from appointing someone well regarded by peers and superiors who turned out to be completely unfitted for the new position. Consider Braxton Bragg…


    1 Sep 13 at 3:13 pm

  2. Wonderful book, that latter one you mentioned, Robert. Everyone who ever served in anyone’s military has a stock of there but the Grace of God went I stories about following behind some pompous ass who earned his reputation in a different war, at a vastly different time, in a very different place.


    2 Sep 13 at 3:25 am

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