To understand our own age and avoid repeating the mistakes to which humanity is prone, it helps to be well-read. For those who desire an escape this Christmas and beyond from the craziness of 2020 including from protests, a pandemic, and an erratic president, here is my offering to feed your mind and soul.
These picks are from my library, some recent and some published six decades ago. They include a revisionist history of the Great Depression, how beautiful cities arise, and why practical illiteracy is back in a big way. Plus a bonus recommendation to ward off the Pits of Despair and with tips for storming the castle.
- The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell, 1998, on using race to pummel reason
Anything by Sowell is worth reading. Race and Culture (1994) and Conquests and Cultures (1998) should also be added to your list. But with college students, corporate CEOs and politicians increasingly convinced that America and Canada are “structurally” and “systemically” racist, and using privilege theory as an accomplice, The Quest for Cosmic Justice is starkly relevant more than two decades after its publication. Sowell’s dissection of how people and cultures thrive (or not) and the difficulty of parsing through billions of factors over centuries to attribute ostensible privilege today is piercing in its clarity.
- Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti, 1960, on how crowds and mobs metastasize
Mobs and witch hunts are in vogue. With everyone from the New York Times to universities outing, ousting, or muting those who might dare publish or question some dominant, present opinion. Canetti’s classic work on crowd dynamics and crowd psychology is useful. It will help you grasp how difficult it is to stop a mob in its tracks – whether it be rampaging crowds on the street or mobs on Twitter. A regrettably relevant observation: “One of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted, a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies.”
8. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes, 2007, on how politicians can really mess things up
The stock market crash of 1929 didn’t cause the Great Depression. Crashes occurred before without sending economies into a decade-long depression. Shlaes details how politicians from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly over-intervened in the late 1920 and then in the 1930s with the best of intentions and the worst of policies.
For example, Roosevelt’s administration demanded that milk be dumped rather than be sold for cheap. That kept prices up for farmers and also for urban residents who were poor which hurt them and, along with other poor policy, exacerbated unemployment. (Government-directed higher prices in a shrinking economy with scarce money does not help create jobs—it kills them.) The Forgotten Man is a reminder of how politicians can exacerbate crises.
- A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, 2000 and City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World; 1995, from Witold Rybczynski, on the creation of magnificent city parks
If you’ve ever walked through Central Park in New York City or Mount Royal park in Montreal, you’ve benefitted from 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted creations. His parks were a major instrument in beautifying then-grimy industrial cities. He also saw carefully-designed designed parks as sublime works of art.
Witold Rybczynski, who once taught at McGill, has written multiple tomes on why the beautification of cities matters. A Clearing in the Distance describes the rise of Olmsted and how his vision for Central Park and other urban escapes came to be. And in City Life Rybczynski avoids the snobbery of some re suburbia post-war but instead points towards the garden suburbs created earlier in the 1910s and 1920s which as he points out, with their architectural and urbanistic qualities, have remained attractive places to live.
- Intellectuals, Paul Johnson, 1988, on the danger of smart people untethered from reality
Intellectuals untethered from common sense reality are at their most dangerous when they pronounce on matters about which they know nothing—and that’s a long list – and then advise regimes on the same.
Absent connections to political power, anti-common sense intellectuals would be mere ivory tower thinkers, just raving madmen or conspiracy theorists. But as historian Paul Johnson points out, “With the decline of clerical power in the eighteenth century, a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society. The secular intellectual might be deist, sceptic or atheist. But he was just as ready to as any pontiff or presbyter to tell mankind how to conduct its affairs.”
The problem was that such intellectuals were far more radical than the clerics they replaced as they gave no space to tradition or learning from history. The mind of the intellectual will instead raze all to the ground and begin anew. Johnson details Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell among others, as examples. A quote:
“In a number of ways, the State Rousseau planned for Corsica anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia, and this is not entirely surprising since the Paris-educated leaders of the regime had all absorbed Rousseau’s ideas.”
“Intellectuals are as unreasonable, illogical and superstitious as anyone else.”
- The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman, 1982, on how an image-based, emotional culture wrecks reason
Postman was a cultural critic and famous for another book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The premise of that book and his follow-up, The Disappearance of Childhood, was that mass literacy created childhood and that television was killing it.
TV’s arrival mid-century took Western society away from the high-point of literacy (1850 to 1950), this because our brain processes images differently than the written word. Sentences must be pondered and thought through; this inculcates reason. But our brain doesn’t “argue” with images. It accepts them as real. That sets off highly-charged emotions, and it’s all downhill from there.
My updated take on Postman’s thesis: Add in the temptation of the social media and Twitter insults and all this makes worse what television re-started: Taking us back to a pre-literate era where instant images and instant emotions overrule a reasoned life.
The most notable example of this descent from literacy and a retrenchment to images and impulses is the outgoing American president Donald Trump who is notoriously childlike in his impulsiveness—and not in a good way.
But plenty of others are guilty. They include social justice warriors and anti-rational, anti-vaccination, anti-flouride types. All cherry-pick data and butcher reason for their already-assumed end instead of engaging in logical reasoning which includes deliberately challenging their own biases.
- Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, Vaclav Smil, 2008, on statistical probabilities on what might kill us
Vaclav Smil is professor Emeritus of the Environment at the University of Manitoba. I wrote about this book recently here. In short, if you want to grasp history, statistics and physical realities and why they matter on everything from energy to pandemics, read the academic who is a favourite of Bill Gates.
A quote on possible pandemics within our lifetime, published in 2008, which demonstrates his prescience: “We are, probabilistically speaking, very much inside a high-risk zone.” That was 12 years ago.
- Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe, 1970, on popular protest movements and political and academic cowardice in response
Wit is an indispensable ally to puncturing vanity. No one did this better than Tom Wolfe. Radical Chic served up the early 1970s hypocrisy of New York glitterati and San Francisco protest movements alike by letting them speak for themselves with intermittent wry observations from Wolfe. To wit, there is nothing so tedious as millionaires in search of a higher purpose than facelifts – but when they team up with causes, they almost always are easy prey for the charlatans, con men, guilt-mongers, and extremists.
There’s a straight line from Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panther infatuation to Oakland bureaucrats quivering in the face of protester, chronicled by Wolfe, to demands from today’s over-the-top marchers and riots—and the demand that middle-class America owes everyone else, including the past, an apology.
Wolfe’s 132-page romp through such intellectual and social rot is an antidote to all such moral unction and unthinking groupthink.
- The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Allan Bloom, 1987, on how universities were messing up student minds in the 1980s by catering to fads
Allan Bloom was a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago and an original: An atheist academic who respected the power of religion and a gay man who rejected identity politics.
Bloom was one of the first to chronicle the decline of the university in the West including early forays by academic into political correctness and groupthink all the while believing they were somehow speaking truth to power when they were doing the opposite. Then there is their problem of assuming everything in life and politics is about power and privilege, thus ignoring other passions including empathy and sincere beliefs outside of any power calculations.
I picked up The Closing of the American Mind from a Los Angeles Barnes and Noble bookshelf in the spring of 1988. I later read it by a pool in Lakeview Terrace after my volunteer work was done for the day. I underlined the following excerpt in red. It is more relevant than ever.
“Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.”
- The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, Jonathan Haidt, 2012, who helps us all understand why we think we’re right and others wrong
Haidt, a self-professed liberal Democrat in the American sense and affiliation, set out to discover why good people disagree and these days, vehemently so. A hint: Our hearts run ahead of our brains. We most often use reasoning not to arrive at a conclusion but to tell others why they should arrive at ours. His work is indispensable to getting past our own biases and tribes.
Much to his surprise, Haidt found that liberals and progressives mostly believe in caricatures of conservative and libertarian positions instead of grasping actual core proposals and the thinking behind them. They don’t actually understand much conservative thought. They only think they do.
In contrast, according to Haidt, more conservatives properly grasp the actual arguments and positions advanced by liberals/progressives. It’s just that they think many of those policies and proposals are incorrect, or flawed
.A bonus recommendation: As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes, 2014
If you saw the classic movie, read the book. Cary Elwes (‘Wesley’) has fun detailing wrestling R.O.U.S’s in the fire swamp, Andre the Giant, storming castles, and his infatuation with actress Robin Wright. (A great many in the 1980s had the same infatuation.) Refer to this book (and movie) time and again for an escape from real life.
Mark Milke is an author, columnist and author of six books. His most recent is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.