Reading Challenge: First Quarter Results

In December I said to myself, “Self, I need to read more books for fun”—instead of reading books that I had to address as part of my Caffeinated Press duties. So I accepted my own challenge and set a goal of completing one book per month.
So far, I’m ahead of schedule.
In January, I completed The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff. The third volume of the Oxford History of the United States, this book covers the period of roughly 1763 to 1789—the beginning of colonial discontent through the ratification of the Constitution.
In February, I completed Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen and Poorly Drawn Lines by Reza Farazmand. Farazmand’s book, based on the popular Web comic, was fun. Cartoons. Yay.
In March, I completed Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood. This fourth volume of the Oxford History of the United States series covers the Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison administrations, from the beginning of the Republic through the aftermath of the War of 1812. Also, I got through (in the nick of time!) 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson.
So five books in three months. Not bad.
Now, here are my take-aways.
History (Middelkauff & Wood)
I intend to plow through the entire Oxford History of the United States series this year. The series has been in some flux over its 50 or so years as a project. The first two volumes, tentatively titled American Origins and Imperial America, haven’t yet been published and a release date is still unknown. Middlekauff’s book is the third in the series and the first to market, in 1982. After Wood’s book, the next ones up include What Hath God Wrought (Daniel Walker Howe, covering 1815 to 1848), Battle Cry of Freedom (James M. McPherson, covering the Civil War era) and The Republic For Which It Stands (Richard White, covering 1865 to 1896). I already own those three books. Beyond that, there’s a gap in time given that Bruce Schulman’s Are We A Nation, covering 1896 to 1929, hasn’t yet been released. But then things pick back up with Freedom from Fear (David M. Kennedy, 1929 to 1945) and James T. Patterson’s back-to back Grand Expectations (1945-1974) and Restless Giant (1974-2000).
The reason I’m enthralled with this series is that (a) it’s wonderfully curated by expert historians and prepared with literary flair. So far, anyway. Three of the volumes won the Pulitzer (McPherson, Kennedy and Howe); Middlekauff and Wood were nominated for it. And (b), I’m learning a lot about American culture during the colonial and early Republican period that I’ve never substantively encountered before—and I was a history minor who’s read several in-depth volumes about U.S. history already. In particular, the comparison of 1790s America vs. 2010s America is striking in their similarities. The transition of common culture in 1796 vs. 1806 cannot be overstated, and much of it derives from the Federalist consensus dissolving into the Republican consensus inspired most visibly by Jefferson’s reaction to the Adams administration. The way that the Washington/Adams/Hamilton/Marshall view of the future of the Republic split so significantly from the Jefferson/Madison/Gallatin/Clinton perspective—and the looming shadow of the French Revolution coloring popular opinion about aristocracy and citizenship—contains useful antecedents for understanding the contemporary splits among the populists, the progressives and the moderates colored by an emerging post-Soviet, post-9/11 understanding that Great Power politics mayhaps ain’t dead after all.
All of this has happened before, and all this shall happen again. So existentialist dread proves unwarranted.
Culture (Deneen & Peterson)
A turn away from history, the books by Deneen and Peterson proved interesting reads. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was a bit of a disappointment insofar as it was more a primal scream than a serious treatment of political theory. Deneen sought to explain why liberalism is the only one of the three major Western ideologies to survive the Twentieth Century (fascism and communism having bit the dust, with a ferocious butchers’ bill besides) while simultaneously arguing that liberalism itself is in a death spiral because it’s built on a series of contradictions that are finally being exhausted as shared culture declines. He notes, for example, that the tensions between egalitarianism and material inequality, between communitarianism and individualism, and between consent of the governed vs. elite capture of institutions, all undermine the validity of liberalism as a coherent organizing ideology. Fair enough, and some of his insights genuinely capture the inherent tension between different strands of modern liberal orthodoxy. But he offers no meaningful solution—just wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a fatalistic assessment that All Is Doomed™.
Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life, by contrast, was one of the best texts I’ve encountered in a long time, but for reasons that in retrospect somewhat surprise me. Superficially, the book is—wait for it!—a collection of 12 rules for living your life well. In fact, each rule introduces an essay only loosely connected to the text of the rule itself. Peterson’s shtick borders on the trite: Much of what he writes, at least superficially, fuses Malcolm Gladwell with Norman Vincent Peale. But Peterson, a practicing psychotherapist, manages for the most part to avoid the clichés by going one step deeper with his points. It’s difficult to divine a coherent overall message from his book; instead, he seems to offer a series of value propositions that build on each other, matrix-style, instead of resorting to a single all-encompassing thesis. Of the tidbits I gleaned from his work, several points merit sharing:

  • Confidence and honesty trump the bullying of others and mitigate the pressures against fully realizing your own potential. A bit of righteous aggression, properly channeled, makes for a fuller life higher up on the social food chain, where opportunities flourish.
  • There are limits to what you can do to help others. Do what you can, as much as you can manage, but do not enable continuing pathology. And in particular, although you should let kids explore the limits of risk (risk assessment is a vital life lesson) they nevertheless require firm behavioral boundaries, especially when they’re toddlers. Without those boundaries at an early age, the statistical likelihood of poor socialization or even behavioral disorders significantly increases when those children hit adolescence.
  • Listening to others instead of planning your next rebuttal is the necessary precondition for conversation, without which we never really get to know others or learn anything new.
  • The world teeters between order and chaos. A well-functioning person can walk the knife edge. But yield to too much to the forces of order or chaos, and you open the doors to unhealthy conflict, authoritarianism and inauthentic modes of being.
  • Despite trendy theory, men and women are biologically and socioculturally different, and trying to blend them (e.g., by feminizing men) leads to disrupted mating patterns and social maladjustment by the very men who never mastered control of their aggressive tendencies.

Peterson’s book contains much that might be called New Age deism—he talks about Jesus quite a bit, but it’s not clear from the writing whether Jesus is an object of faith or a convenient metaphor for something more diffuse. His ideas seem firmly lodged in the center-right (he expresses some left-wing sympathies, but comes down hard on the side of personal responsibility, traditional gender roles and strict parenting). He also seems partial to Nietzsche, Freud and Jung and in some ways amplifies the views of those men.
What struck me about the book wasn’t so much the ideas, which aren’t particularly new, but rather the charmingly conversational way they’re shared and the not-very-ideological way he presents them. Unlike Deneen, Peterson doesn’t seem interested in scoring political points. Instead, he presents life lessons that support (without saying so) “traditional values” without casting aspersions on those ideologically inclined to disagree with his dicta.
Some of his lessons (including the bit about the lobsters) struck home in part because they spoke to specific challenges I’m presently wrestling with. I found myself wanting to read just one more chapter each night because I found a useful tidbit I could put to practical use. That said, none of the major themes were new to me. He packaged them well, and gently, but he’s not breaking new ground here.
So: Deneen, skip. Peterson, read.

A Better Person, or a Happy Person?

While working this morning on a blog post for Caffeinated Press, I had included a throw-away line (since deleted) about how the breadth, not necessarily depth, of someone’s reading history made for a more well-rounded writer.
That segment and its implications have been percolating ‘twixt my earholes for the last few hours. I think I originally intended the idea to mean that exposure to many different genres makes for a better author, insofar as writers benefit from engagement with different rhetorical devices, modes of writing and standards of literary excellence. In short: “Diversity makes you stronger.”
But I’m not sure I really believe the diversity argument. After all, it’s not exactly rare for the D-word to get tossed out as some sort of MacGuffin, a trinket to be prized for its own sake, when really, what we’re talking about with D-word euphemisms is some other subject we’d prefer to avoid discussing plainly.
When I visited prison inmates during my time volunteering for the Catholic diocese and the Michigan Department of Corrections, one of the slogans I frequently heard was: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” The inmates believed, based on their own experiences, that life’s a hard teacher, but if you pay attention and at least get a passing grade, you’ll survive. Put differently, it’s not the exposure, but the engagement that counts; you can’t just drive past 8 Mile, you need to walk the block, too.
In a literary sense, a stronger writer is one who engaged in the struggle rather than merely observed it. For example, an author’s voice and rhetorical approach for a story about a young woman contemplating abortion will differ significantly depending on whether the author has had an abortion, protests against them, or is utterly ambivalent to the issue. Your depth of experience (laying on the table waiting for a surgical D&C, vs. studying the laws and stats and joining prayer chains, vs. not caring a whit but writing anyway on a work-for-hire assignment) matters more than how widely studied you are about the procedure. Right?
Maybe. But maybe not. The activist knows the subject, but not necessarily all the context on the margins that lead to a more sound interpretation of that subject. Perhaps an ethicist or a physician can speak more soundly about abortion, in toto, than the activist who undergoes the procedure or the cleric who wages spiritual warfare against it.
The better question is: From the perspective of a writer, is it more advantageous to master the niche but forego context, or to have lots of context but no real depth? There’s no good answer to that one, I’m afraid, but it’s a valuable paradigm for assessing how well a given story works.
In the context of an author’s reading habits, though, I think “the struggle” manifests itself in tackling hard material simply for the pleasure and the challenge of doing so. Too many writers of my acquaintance content themselves to reading the things they like while avoiding the things they dislike. Although at first blush such a sentiment may elicit a self-evident “Duh,” the problem lies in the Venn diagram of what I like vs. everything else. A sci-fi author who only reads sci-fi will have a solid heartbeat on the genre, but he hamstrings himself from the perspective of the totality of his art as a penmonkey.
Distilled, I think it’s a comfort question. We read what we like and we like what we read because it’s more enjoyable to read for entertainment than to read for self-improvement. The fantasy fan who consumes nothing but fantasy surely profits in her own mental world. Yet can we not say that the person who reads challenging things — histories, the classics, autobiographies — encounters new things in new ways that leaves her better off than if she had played it safe?
A recent re-read of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius reinforced for me the value of using every action as a learning moment, even actions intended as leisure. So perhaps a different way of phrasing the “reading for fun” question is, Is it preferable to read to become a better person, or to read to become a happier person? For the two prospects, although they occasionally overlap, aren’t exactly synonymous.
Do I read The Brothers Karamazov because I should, knowing that I’d gain new insight about the human condition but also dreading the book’s length and density? Do I grab the latest Nicholas Sparks throw-away pulp just to pass the time?
These are tough questions. It’s hard to begrudge a reader the right of escape. But for an author? I think an author’s reading list needs to be less comfortable, more challenging. We owe our readers that much.