What I’ve Been Reading (August 2020)

Lots of books.

1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Keefe

I was expecting a true crime story, and it is, but it’s much more. It’s a rather in depth exploration of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where 4,000 people died amidst the violence between the Catholics who wanted to unify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland battling against the Protestants and British allies who sought to remain within the United Kingdom.

It’s a tremendously informative, originally reported, and crisply written deep dive into this period of Ireland’s history. Be prepared for darkness, though. There are no heroes. Here’s one graf I highlighted:

When the torture ended, after a week, some of the men were so broken that they could not remember their own names. Their eyes had a haunted, hollow look to them, which one of the men likened to “two pissholes in the snow.” Another detainee, who had gone into the interrogation with jet-black hair, came out of the experience with hair that was completely white. (He died not long after being released, of a heart attack, at forty-five.) When Francie McGuigan was finally returned to Crumlin Road jail, he saw his father, and the older man broke down and cried.

2. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Super entertaining novel inspired by the Madoff ponzi scheme with fun plot lines involving the shipping and hotel industries. Strong character development, lovely writing, easy to read. A few highlights from Kindle:

“She was never Alkaitis’s secretary, she realizes now, when she looks up the word. A secretary is a keeper of secrets.”

In their late thirties they’d decided not to have children, which at the time seemed like a sensible way to avoid unnecessary complications and heartbreak, and this decision had lent their lives a certain ease that he’d always appreciated, a sense of blissful unencumbrance. But an encumbrance might also be thought of as an anchor, and what he’d found himself thinking lately was that he wouldn’t mind being more anchored to this earth.

A steady, low-key, intelligent person, much more interested in listening than in talking about himself. He had that trick—and it was a trick, Leon realized later—of appearing utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him, and in so doing provoking the opposite anxiety in other people: What does Alkaitis think of me? Later, in the years that he spent replaying this particular evening, Leon remembered a certain desire to impress him.

She had studied the habits of the monied with diligence. She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness.

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

(A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative.)

3. Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner

A spot-on take on many of the current social dynamics of San Francisco life during the modern tech boom. Artistically written by a young woman who ends up making money herself as an early employee of a unicorn company. Every phrase intentional, fresh. E.g. “After busing our own table, the engineer suggested we repair to a tiny cocktail bar in the Tenderloin.” (She actually uses “repair” in the same way in another sentence in the book elsewhere — the first and second time that I’d ever seen that verb used in that context.)

“I could not fathom interrogating my relationship with my parents as a form of socializing. I felt uptight, conservative, repressed, corporate by comparison—but I also felt okay with that.”

4. Make it Scream, Make It Burn by Leslie Jamison

Tremendous set of essays across a range of topics. See my previous review of Jamison’s book about addiction. I’m in awe of her writing talents. Highlights below:

It bothered Leonora that people conflated 52’s aloneness with loneliness. It bothered her that people conflated her aloneness with loneliness. Apropos of very little, she told me, “I haven’t been in a relationship since the last century. I haven’t been on a date.” She said it worried other people in her life, friends and family members who tried to set her up. “It’s like a woman is not a whole person until she has a man.” But it didn’t worry her. “I’ve never felt lonely. There is not this lonely factor. I am alone. But I am not lonely, okay? I go over to a friend’s, I buy cases of wine, I have people over, I cook.” It was hard not to hear a hint of doth protest too much in her insistence. But I was also hearing an argument for the importance of humility: Don’t assume the contours of another person’s heart. Don’t assume its desires. Don’t assume that being alone means being lonely.

It seemed much easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.

I hated its smugness—how she positions herself as a knowing skeptic in a world full of self-delusion. I started to believe there was an ethical failure embedded in skepticism itself, the same snobbery that lay beneath the impulse to resist clichés in recovery meetings or wholly dismiss people’s overly neat narratives of their own lives.

Their witty asides had become part of a well-worn story. Even its grooves of self-deprecation held the uneasy echoes of lines performed effectively and often.

We say, Wow. We say it again. We stay humble. We can’t know for sure until the body turns up in the river—and even then, it might not be the end. We walk toward the lights. We are safe, or else we aren’t. We live, until we don’t. We return, unless we can’t.

If you learn to pay attention, he says, “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars.”

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me the question isn’t whether Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

I have spent much of my life as a writer chasing poet C. D. Wright’s suggestion that we try to see people “as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves.”

The more frequently I was told I didn’t seem to be from L.A., the more strongly I wanted to defend it. It was a place other people loved to call shallow or fake, but I found its strip malls and their parking lots oddly gorgeous: sunlight glimmering off gritty streets, palm trees silhouetted against smoggy sunsets.

Marriage wasn’t the bliss of possibility. It was the more complicated satisfaction of actually living and actually having.

Marriage is what happens when the mirage shimmers away to reveal plain asphalt straight ahead. It’s everything you keep trying to summon faith in, and it delivers you to what you couldn’t have imagined: past that first flush of falling in love, to all the other kinds of love that lie ahead. You may never reach Lake Mead, but you’ll always have the drive itself—that particular glow of evening sun baking the highway, setting the cars on fire, light brighter than you can stand to look at, and already holding the night.

there was such a thing as too much honesty. “I find it incredibly difficult to like the narrator of this essay,” he said. I found his phrasing amusing, the narrator of this essay, as if she were a stranger we could gossip about. It was my first nonfiction class, and I wasn’t used to the rules of displacement—all of us pretending we weren’t also critiquing one another’s lives.

5. What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

Solid discussion of corporate culture. Highlights:

Jobs explained: “We at Apple had forgotten who we were. One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.”

VMware’s potential partners would be extremely skeptical of any independent-operating-system company proposing a similar “win-win.” So Greene came up with a shocking rule: Partnerships should be 49/51, with VMware getting the 49. Did she just tell her team to lose? That definitely begs the question “Why?” Greene said, “I had to give our business development people permission to be good to the partners, because one-sided partnerships would not work.” Her rule was actually met not with resistance but with relief

It was of course no easier to measure an exact 49/51 split than a 50/50 “win-win,” but Greene’s employees understood her underlying point: “If you’re negotiating something on the margin, it’s okay to give it to our partner.” VMware went on to create a stunning set of partnerships with Intel, Dell, HP, and IBM that propelled the company to a market capitalization of more than $60 billion.

Stories and sayings define cultures. John Morgridge, the CEO of Cisco from 1988 to 1995, wanted every spare nickel spent on the business. But as many of his employees had come from free-spending cultures, simply reminding them to be frugal didn’t get his point across. Morgridge walked the talk by staying at the Red Roof Inn, but even his example didn’t prove truly contagious. So he came up with a pithy axiom: “If you cannot see your car from your hotel room, then you are paying too much.”

One thing to look for is volunteer work, which helpful people naturally like to do. It also turns out that during the interview, helpful people want to talk much more about the interviewer than about themselves: by learning about her they can anticipate her needs and be, well, helpful.

This one is easy to corroborate with references, and in an interview you can ask, “Tell me about a situation in your last company where something was substandard and you helped to fix it.”

The questions employees everywhere ask themselves all the time are “Will what I do make a difference? Will it matter? Will it move the company forward? Will anybody notice?” A huge part of management’s job is to make sure the answer to all those questions is “Yes!”

The final vital component of the decision-making process is “Do you favor speed or accuracy and by how much?” The answer depends on the nature and size of your business…. consider a business like Andreessen Horowitz, where I work. We make about twenty important investment decisions a year. Getting those right is generally a much higher priority than making them quickly. If you only have twenty shots on goal in a year, you want to make sure each one counts. So we’ll spend hours and hours debating, visiting and revisiting aspects of our decision—then work through the entire process again the next day. Accuracy is much more important to us than speed.

What I’ve Been Reading (in Quarantine)

Reading while sheltering-in-place:

1. Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World by Peter Zeihan.

Zeihan, a foreign policy and geopolitics guru, is having a moment right now. A lot of people in tech are reading him and enjoying his bearish take on China and bullish take on America — among other provocative predictions.

This is his latest book. I found it informative. Much of it is a country-by-country analysis of the country’s prospects for the next 50-100 years. It reminded me of Stratfor newsletters, which I used to subscribe to. While I enjoyed Disunited Nations as someone who follows foreign affairs reasonably closely, I’m surprised this book has achieved such a mainstream audience — it’s rather in the weeds geopolitically. I found myself skimming pages about countries I’m not as interested in.

Zeihan’s overall argument seems right: The American-led order — pax Americana — is collapsing and in its place is a fractured multi-polar world. This is an argument others, like Ian Bremmer, have made before, so it’s not exactly new, but it’s well composed in this version. What makes this book stand out is the level of detail with which Zeihan makes specific country predictions. In summary: “On a grand scale, many of us are betting on the wrong horses. France will lead the new Europe, not Germany. We should be worried about Saudi Arabia, not Iran. We should be thinking about how to remedy mass starvation in China, not counter its economic and military clout.”

There’s a lot I could excerpt on China, but here’s one theme: China has a lot of enemies, including its neighbors: “The best example of the difficulty the Chinese face in establishing trust is the country that provided the Americans with their most memory-searing war: Vietnam. Agent Orange. Napalm. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi. America’s war in Vietnam was messy and angry and lasted for two decades. In contrast, the Han Chinese fought the Vietnamese for two millennia. In 2020 the Vietnamese are eager to welcome American businesspeople and carriers because they don’t think the war with the United States lasted long enough to qualify Americans as epic foes. In contrast, the Vietnamese view of China borders on the pathological.”

I found his focus on physical geography a little quaint, seeming. E.g. a country’s potential over the next 100 years being as affected by which mountain range it would surrounded by. Seems dated in a cyber world.

Overall — a good read for foreign policy nuts, probably a skip for general readers.

2. The Ask: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte. Many laugh out loud moments in this compelling, breezy novel.

3. King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone by David Carey and John E. Morris. An interesting history of Blackstone. Quite a lot of detail on hundreds of specific deals that led to the building of such a behemoth. So, interesting to industry insiders only.

4. Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison. An extraordinary memoir about foster parenting. You can’t help but be in awe of the size of Harrison’s heart; the extraordinary generosity she extends to some of the neediest children in her community. Many very sad scenes here, about children in the foster system. Harrison writes about her experience with what seems to be the exact right blend of head and heart; warmth and empathy that’s balanced with cold steel eyed resolve when things aren’t right. A must read for anyone interested in the foster system.

Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a memoir from lawyer Bryan Stevenson about his work fighting against the death penalty and mass incarceration in Alabama. A couple months ago the book got turned into a Hollywood film featuring Michael B Jordan (which I haven’t watched). There’s also an HBO documentary about Stevenson (which I did just watch), and the TED talk that brought Stevenson’s work to the mainstream for many in the tech community a few years ago.

I found his memoir incredibly inspirational. And of course sad and infuriating at the same time. Stevenson details numerous instances of injustice; some of which are never rectified prior to the alleged criminals’ execution. Some injustices are innocent men dying (or about to die, were it not for Stevenson’s intervention) for crimes they did not commit. Others are guilty men who were subject to excessive punishment (e.g. the death penalty) or suffered from a failure of due process that is inhumane.

Separate from the stories of specific stories of justice denied, Stevenson argues for proper historical understanding of the current state of affairs in the American justice system. He starts with the settlers’ genocide of Native Americans –> slavery –> lynching –> the mass incarceration of today. It’s all connected. The inequities in today’s justice system find their roots in racial discrimination of the deepest sort dating back centuries. I was rather persuaded by his argument that truth & reconciliation needs to occur in America about the Civil War and slavery and Jim Crow in the same way that other countries have reconked with grand scale injustices, e.g. South Africa, Rwanda, Germany, etc. As Stevenson says, you have to first deal with the truth, then address reconciliation.

Of my Kindle highlights, here’s one paragraph: “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”

Stevenson as a human is something to behold. The passion, the relentless, the desire to serve a purpose larger than self. Bryan has never married or had children. There are no close personal friends who receive routine mention in the memoir. He doesn’t appear to have any hobbies outside of work and playing the piano. He is consumed by his mission and it’s a very admirable mission at that. We owe people like Stevenson a debt of gratitude for sacrificing so much for the greater good. I frequently ask myself, when I read memoirs or biographies about men and women of this disposition (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind), whether I could ever see myself so subsuming my own desires and personal needs in service of any sort of mission, be it a noble one such as Stevenson’s or a purely selfish one. I usually conclude I cannot. The single mindedness and complete subjugation of the individual to the mission — the dissolution of the ego, if you will, but not in the Buddhist sense of that phrase — is something I don’t see in my past, present, or future. But who knows. There’s a purity to life purpose that’s appealing. There’s no question as to how to spend your time when you wake up in the morning. You go and do the work, day after day after day.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the holidays reading this epic Russian tome, my first Russian novel. It was a good book to read while on Christmas break — being able to sink into it for a few hours each day allowed me to stay grounded in the plot and keep track of all the characters over the course of the 800+ pages. I had the expectation that I’d get lost; I don’t tend to do well when the character count exceeds a handful. But now, with a couple months of distance from the experience, I still have a vivid sense of Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Anna, which shows the depth of the

2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A compelling memoir of a therapist reflecting on the act of being a therapist and going to therapy herself. Lots of excellents nuggets into how therapy works and doesn’t work. A few highlights:

Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how we feel while we’re sitting with them…

“We’ve talked before about how there’s a difference between a criticism and a complaint, how the former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. But a complaint can also be an unvoiced compliment…

Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it’s outward-directed—angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you’ll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, insecurity…

As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”…

Sex comes up with almost every patient I see, the same way that love does. Earlier on, I’d asked John about his sex life with Margo, given the difficulties in their relationship. It’s a common belief that people’s sex lives reflect their relationships, that a good relationship equals a good sex life and vice versa. But that’s only true sometimes. Just as often, there are people who have extremely problematic relationships and fantastic sex, and there are people who are deeply in love but who don’t click with the same intensity in the bedroom.

3. Autumn by Karl Knausgaard. I love Knausgaard — search my blog for my other reviews. This one didn’t stick for me. I did like this paragraph though:

But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York or Tokyo, for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty metres above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.

4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. A modern, funny, incisive novel that’s being widely read, apparently, by those in the in circles of Brooklyn lit, etc etc. I enjoyed it a great deal. I didn’t find it, in the end, as feminist a book as I was expecting.

He explained to Toby that presence in a yoga class, no matter your ability, was a shortcut to showing a woman how evolved you were, how you were strong, how you were not set on maintaining the patriarchy that she so loathed and feared….

She was now an inner ear problem, something affecting his balance…

I’d read those stupid blogs about Disney, and they all warned me that the character lunch at the Crystal Palace would fill up fast, so I should book at eleven A.M., but they did not warn me about the existential dread of being there. It was like I could finally see what I’d become, made clear through my presence among yet another entire set of women who looked just like me. I couldn’t bear being this suburban mom who was alternating between screaming at her kids and being the heartfelt, privileged witness to their joy. But the people around us—the haranguing mothers and the sexless fathers—I kept trying to find ways that I was better than these people, but all I kept landing on was the fact that the common denominator was me.

5. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of interesting observations from one of the strongest non-fiction storytellers at work today, even if the big picture thesis eluded me, a bit. Still recommended.

And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population…

In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.

Book Notes: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is a searing account of her struggles with alcoholism.

It’s long. I read the first 400+ pages and got distracted by something else and never came back to it. But the 400 pages I read were phenomenal, and gave me great insight into the mind of a super high functioning alcoholic and the nature of addiction. I’m no expert in the genre of addiction memoir but this one, apparently, is considered among the best.

Some of my Kindle highlights below. Bolded sentences my own.


In John Barleycorn, a novel published in 1913, Jack London conjured two kinds of drunks: the ones who stumbled through the gutters hallucinating “blue mice and pink elephants,” and the ones to whom the “white light of alcohol” had granted access to bleak truths: “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” The first type of drunk had his mind ravaged by booze, “bitten numbly by numb maggots,” but the second type had his mind sharpened instead.

Life with Daniel was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled. He was a messy eater. There were bits of cabbage in his beard, patches of ice cream melted on his sheets, crusted pots and pans in his sink, tiny beard hairs all over his bathroom counter.

drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain. You could numb it, or else grant it a voice.

My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered. My fascination owed a debt to what Susan Sontag calls the “nihilistic and sentimental idea of ‘the interesting.’” In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag describes the nineteenth-century idea that if you were ill, you were also “more conscious, more complex psychologically.” Illness became an “interior décor of the body,” while health was considered “banal, even vulgar.”

My own pain seemed embarrassingly trivial, self-constructed and sought.

At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished. The situation would sharpen into awareness, in fleeting moments, and I’d think, This isn’t what I want, and then it would dissolve into soft focus again.

In early drafts, there were no explicit traumas in the narrative that produced their self-destructive impulses. The mystery of these impulses was what I wanted to explore, the possibility that you might damage yourself to figure out why you wanted to damage yourself—the way exhaling into cold air makes your breath visible.

Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes—that was the hardest thing to accept.

A few scientists eventually wondered: What if they were given some company? What if they were given something else to do? In the early eighties, these scientists designed Rat Park, a spacious plywood habitat painted with pine trees and filled with climbing platforms, running wheels, tin cans for hiding, wood chips for playing, and—most important—lots of other rats. The rats in that cage didn’t press the coke lever until they died. They had better things to do. The point wasn’t that drugs couldn’t be addictive, but that addiction was fueled by so much besides the drugs themselves. It was fueled by the isolation of the white cage, and by the lever as substitute for everything else.

Their aliveness, their daily-ness, their back-and-forth energy, came like a sudden slap, a confirmation of my fears: He would always crave the sharp tingling sensation of falling for someone, rather than having her.

Pool told me that he started shooting heroin after dropping out of college, operating under the notion, as she put it, that “writers needed conflict and adversity. So he deliberately went out to find some.”

Describing Dave to a friend, I invoked that scene from Out of Africa where another character explains what’s charming and infuriating about Robert Redford as a big-game-hunting, impossibly restless lover: “He likes giving gifts, but not at Christmas.”

When Dr. Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. “You’re really smart,” she tells them. “That might work against you.” The idea of being “too smart for AA” immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple.

At meetings, I hated when other people abandoned narrative particularity in their stories—I accidentally crushed my daughter’s pet turtle after too much absinthe—for the bland pudding of abstraction—I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wanted crushed turtles and absinthe. Clichés were like blights, refusals of clarity and nuance, an insistence on soft-focus greeting-card wisdom: This too shall pass, which I once saw on a cross-stitch in the bathroom of a Wyoming meeting, followed by It just did. Long ago, I had learned that to become a writer I had to resist clichés at all costs. It was such accepted dogma that I’d never wondered why it was true.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books. Many of which I didn’t fully finish but I take pride in that (not finishing most/all books I start).

1. The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum. I read everything Daum writes. I even took a writing workshop with her earlier this year. She’s one of the premier essayists around, in my view. This book is not a collection of essays, though, it’s a continuous narrative documenting her “lived experience” (the phrase of the moment) navigating the culture wars. I found myself sympathetic to many of her arguments about the extremes of modern left wing cultural norms.

2. String Theory by David Foster Wallace. Collection of old DFW essays about tennis. Always great and worth perusing if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

3. One and Only by Lauren Sandler. Excellent summary of the research on being an only child and excellent personal reflections on what it’s like to be and parent an only child. Refutes many inaccurate stereotypes about being an only. She points out that singletons are immune from modern political correctness culture — it’s still fair game to make fun of the self-centeredness of only children, even though that stereotype (among others) is unfounded.

Some quotes:

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self,” May Sarton wrote—a musing that makes me want to pull on a coat, leave behind my cell phone, and take an indulgently long walk on a crisp day.

“Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” By primary relationship, what he means is that whether we like it or not, married or single, identical twin or only child, every relationship we have is secondary to the one we have with ourselves—nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, “At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.”

The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, “You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship”

4. Recursion by Blake Crouch

Fairly compelling sci fi. I read it on a beach — a good book to get absorbed by on the road. That being said, I preferred Crouch’s other novel Dark Matter.

“His mind races. It is the lonely hour of the night, one with which he is all too familiar—when the city sleeps but you don’t, and all the regrets of your life rage in your mind with an unbearable intensity.”

5. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann

Some big ideas that didn’t captivate me.

6. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures

Some fun stories about how culturally determined many diseases are. Eating disorders are uniquely American, for example. Penis snatching (the feeling that someone has stolen your penis) is unique to certain countries in Africa. Makes you wonder what other beliefs in life are so culturally influenced. I read the first half but didn’t finish. Here’s Nick Gray’s summary.

7. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. I love Keith’s writing. I eagerly dove into this novel. The writing is spare and expert…so spare, in fact, that at halfway I began to bore of the slow-moving “and today I woke up and helped my grandmother down the stairs” plot developments. I’m okay with micro observations but prefer more elaborate Knaussagardian flourishes.

There are, though, some touching scenes of the protagonist taking care of his aging grandmother, whose mind is going, memory flickering in and out.  Or of the grandmother trying to not go mad of boredom, as she never figured out a way of “doing leisure” in the late afternoon witching hour.

8. Open by Andre Agassi. A super well written memoir from the tennis legend — likely credit the same ghostwriter who penned Phil Knight’s renowned Shoedog, J. R. Moehringer.

The most stunning fact from Agassi’s memoir: he hates the game of tennis. Always has. His abusive father turned him into a tennis maniac as a child against his wishes, basically, and there was no turning back — from playing the game he became amazing at, or from hating every second of it.

I like playing tennis but I’m not that into the history of tennis tournaments to desire so much detailed blow-by-blows of matches and tournaments. I’d still recommend the memoir for any casual tennis player or fan to get inside the head of a world class sports champion and better appreciate the sacrifice and mental fortitude that made him so.

9. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

I dipped into a few chapters of this one. Spiritual freedom is defined as being able to ask what you should do with your time — you possess a meaningful degree of autonomy with which to challenge norms and shape a life. And secular faith is defined as acknowledging the fundamental finitude of life, and consoling oneself over the unchangeable fact that no one gets out alive. Religious faith assumes the ability to live forever in the afterlife.

The loss of loved ones is the experience that is hardest to bear in a secular age. – Charles Taylor

Book Review: Our Man by George Packer

I wasn’t expecting to read a 600 page biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, but after reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent review of George Packer’s biography, I one-clicked the Kindle purchase of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

It’s extraordinary. On several nights the past couple weeks, I climbed into bed exhausted by the day and expecting to read for just a few minutes before falling asleep. Instead I stayed up past my bedtime, riveted by the historical sketches of far-flung places, the complex shades of grey of each of the Beltway cast of characters, and the compelling portrait of the man at the center of this biography: Holbrooke.

I learned a lot about Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan — and America’s foreign policy record in each place. I learned about the “American century” of foreign policy, as Packer calls it, the 50-60 years after WWII when Pax Americana ruled and there was a sense that no humanitarian or democratic cause was too small for America — that American diplomatic, cultural, and military might could right wrongs in every corner of the earth. And most of all, I learned a lot about one man — Holbrooke — who embodied the idealistic values of his generation, and who became a one-man wrecking ball whose energy and intellect and doggedness and arrogance and unapologetic ambition really did change the world in several concrete ways.

Holbrooke was of a class: “These were unsentimental, supremely self-assured white Protestant men—privileged, you could say—born around the turn of the century, who all knew one another and knew how to get things done. They didn’t take a piss without a strategy.”

He set his ambitions high from the outset of his career, where, shortly after joining the Foreign Service and heading to Vietnam, he openly predicted that he’d one day become Secretary of State. Packer’s description of how Holbrooke manifested his ambition — so sweatily transparent it was repulsive even to those inclined to affection for the man — reminded me of Caro’s description of Lyndon Johnson’s early political years. “Ambition is not a pretty thing up close, Packer writes. “It’s wild and crass, and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room.”

LBJ of course achieved his ultimate ambition (the White House) whereas Holbrooke never quite did. He served key roles throughout the State Department and ultimately was named Ambassador to the UN by Bill Clinton, but never reached Secretary of State. In this sense Packer suggests Holbrooke was “almost great”– and the “almost” ate at Holbrooke till the day he died. Packer writes, about himself, “As a member of the class of lesser beings who aspire to a good life but not a great one—who find the very notion both daunting and distasteful—I can barely fathom the agony of that ‘almost.’ ”

One corollary to Holbrooke’s ambition and frenetic workaholism was a complete lack of an inner life. Packer suggests that whatever introspecting Holbrooke engaged in served his ambition more so than a search for truth or identity. “So much thought, so little inwardness. He could not be alone—he might have had to think about himself,” Packer writes. Packer elaborates:

Except in fiction, the only inner life you can ever really know is your own. With others we might get flickers, intimations of the continuous parallel hidden experience that’s just as alive and rich in contours as the visible, audible person. Some of us have a talent for projecting it outward—detailed dreams and memories, Tourette’s-like eruptions, self-analysis. Holbrooke was not among these translucent souls. For most of his life, in almost every situation, he kept the parallel experience under heavy guard.

After romping through Vietnam and Bosnia — the Dayton peace accord being Holbrooke’s signature diplomatic achievement, of course — the final fifth of the book takes place in Obama’s White House. We see Holbrooke fail miserably to connect with Barack Obama or the inner circle of the Obama foreign policy team, a team very self-conscious about breaking from the foreign policy establishment and which had little interest in lessons from Vietnam. Packer suggests Obama saw his role as “managing America’s decline wisely” — from the sole superpower with an ambitious idealistic agenda — to that of a more humble player on an increasingly crowded global stage, chastened by the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Of course, the Obama philosophy of restraint and humility cut against Holbrooke’s more idealistic instincts and revealed the generational divide between the two: one who came of age during a time of American greatness and the other rose to power during the clear decline of American power. Nonetheless, Obama and Holbrooke should have gotten along more than they did: Holbrooke actually shared Obama’s perspective on America’s involvement in Afghanistan, which was to send fewer troops than the generals were requesting. But interpersonally, they clashed, and Holbrooke was sidelined.

Packer was granted exclusive access to Holbrooke’s diary entries, Holbrooke kept dutifully throughout his career, ever attentive to his legacy. The entries are wonderfully written. Certain chapters in Packer’s book are entirely Holbrooke’s diary. He’s a wonderful writer; indeed, Holbrooke spent considerable time as a writer/journalist/ghostwriter. So you can really see his mind come alive. For example, here’s Holbrooke’s private diary entry on Bob Woodward’s book on Afghanistan decision making in the Obama White House:

It’s a very poor book in terms of explaining how policy is made. It’s full of meaningless and trivial little factoids and anecdotes that are irrelevant to the larger theme. Woodward would argue that those illustrate the personality of the president, and in that sense he’s right. But he doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t matter, and because he writes as he gets the information, the information is out of context. A minor dispute that was resolved quickly but with great intensity might take precedence over a major policy dispute which is resolved in a different, more orderly way.

By the end of this biography, you get a sense of a man so rich in strengths and yet so hobbled by weakness. So beloved, and yet so hated by so many people. Packer writes: “I used to think that if Holbrooke could just be fixed—a dose of self-restraint, a flash of inward light—he could have done anything. But that’s an illusion. We are wholly ourselves. If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great.”

Below are some other highlighted sentences from Our Man from my Kindle. Here’s my report from traveling to Bosnia that includes highlights from Kaplan’s the Balkan Ghosts. Here are my notes from Joseph Epstein’s book Ambition. George Packer is a gifted writer. Here’s a previous post on George Packer commenting on Andrew Sullivan; here’s my quick recap of Packer’s earlier book.


[Holbrooke would say:] “I feel, and I hope this doesn’t sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are.”

The only problems worth his time were the biggest, hardest ones.

How he lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize—that kind of thing, all the time, as if he needed to discharge a surplus of self every few hours to maintain his equilibrium.

Holbrooke had invoked his father and it nearly undid him. If those few words were enough to break his formidable public control, imagine what else lay breathing in his depths. Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed. If you want analysis, that’s the best I can give you.

Today it’s impossible to imagine someone his age, aglow with molten ambition, choosing the Foreign Service. But in those days it was different. Business wasn’t entrepreneurial and heroic—it was corporate and dull.

Years later, when his students at Georgetown would ask him how to become secretary of state, he would answer: “If you eat turds for the rest of your life to become someone, either 1) you’ll achieve it and discover you’re not happy, or 2) because you’re eating turds and your ambition is so obvious, you won’t get it.”

[In his youth] His ambition still had a clean smell, and youth was working in his favor—physical courage, moral passion, the boundless energy and enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun, the skepticism, the readiness to talk straight to ambassadors and generals.

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel. But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war. “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”

Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself; it is as much of a decision to do nothing as it is to do something.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” an administrator at the embassy told Holbrooke, “but you will move faster if you slow down.”

The process of disenchantment was excruciatingly slow. Later on, people would backdate their moment of truth, their long-deferred encounter with the glaringly obvious. [On Vietnam]

She was an intelligent woman, Phi Beta Kappa at Brown, but his brilliance sapped her self-confidence. There was nothing in her life she could be proud of, except the boys and the occasional canard à l’orange. She felt that she bored her husband when she tried to confide in him, and so she was lonely even when they were together.

While she slept, there had been a revolution in the lives of American women. In 1964 she was expected to be her husband’s helpmeet. In 1971 she was a loser for having no career of her own.

If Holbrooke found you interesting but not threatening, he could be the best company in the world.

So there’s a mystery. And maybe there should be. We like to think that truth lies in details, the more details the clearer the truth, like the cumulative pages of a trial transcript, but this piling up of facts only gives us the false assurance that we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when in fact we understand almost nothing. There’s a kind of injustice that goes by the name of thoroughness. Who could hold up under trial by biography? None of us. I’ll try to stay clear of testimony, verdict, and sentence.

Deng’s sixteen-day “lesson” in February 1979 killed twenty thousand people—ten thousand Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and an equal number of Chinese soldiers—while destroying a large swath of northern Vietnam that had been spared American bombing.
Blythe couldn’t stand Washington. Her reasons weren’t original—it was full of self-important bores who made no distinction between work and personal life—but you can imagine her particular frustration as a young woman.

But it wasn’t enough to rescue people at sea—they had to be given permanent homes somewhere. Neighboring countries announced that they were full up, tugging boats back out to sea and even threatening to shoot the desperate passengers. In June 1979, Holbrooke flew on Air Force One to Japan for the G7 summit meeting, and during the flight across the Pacific he badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand. It was not a priority issue.

The next year—the last of his presidency—Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the annual number of refugees allowed into the country. By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.

It’s strange to remember that there were no bigger celebrities in the eighties than the men and women who read news scripts on TV. Everything about them—their seven-figure salaries, their rivalries, their haircuts—was a story, often bigger than the news itself, as when ABC and NBC tried to steal Sawyer away from CBS (ABC finally got her).

Not because he ever closed a deal—he didn’t—but because bankers who knew their own deficiencies were as dazzled by his political intelligence and worldliness as he was by their money. No matter how rich and successful, bankers tend to be narrow and gray, and Holbrooke was polychromatic company.

Ever since the acquisition of Lehman by Shearson/American Express, Holbrooke had been star-fucking the CEO of AmEx, James Robinson (in spite of finding him intellectually incurious and self-absorbed),

Ghostwriters are a tolerated literary scandal, but their presence lingers like the echo of another voice that confuses the sense of true verisimilitude.

Holbrooke considered the scandals a late-life lapse that didn’t lay a glove on the great man.

His shameless hunger made him more vulnerable than his heroes, and, to me at least, more human.

Something went wrong. The speakers were improvising and trying to top one another, paying back the high cost of being in his life. They didn’t know how to be witty, the jokes cut too deep and true, and the smell of blood turned the play savage. Holbrooke, who could never laugh at himself because he didn’t know himself, was laughing now from his table by the podium because it was the only way to survive the disaster, and he kept looking around for others to join him. But no one else was laughing.

SHE WAS INDISPUTABLY BEAUTIFUL, with the middle coloring he liked. Magyar cheekbones. Brown eyes keenly, you could say acquisitively, fixed from earliest childhood photos on the object of their desire. European style of elegance—she could get away with a trench coat and foulard. Breasts larger than he expected—he liked that too. Her beauty wasn’t the kind that sat back and waited to be unveiled. It was acutely conscious of its power, and when she walked into a room not only did every man think, She looks great, but they felt, in some subtle way that they didn’t understand, compelled to tell her, as if the price of not doing so would be too high. She elicited admiration and fear, leading men and women alike to cast themselves as obliging extras in the drama she created.

And in fact you could easily imagine her as the passionate and calculating Comtesse de Marton in a novel by Stendhal—the quick wit, the love of books and talk, the shrewdness about other people, the machinations.

[Diary entries:] I talked to Les Gelb tonight, who said that he had had the worst conversation of his life with Tony Lake, a thirty-minute screaming match which had basically torn what was left of their friendship. … Entering the Oval Office for the “pre-brief” with Christopher, Berger, and Gore, I was startled when the president looked up from his desk at me and said, “I didn’t know that you were dating Peter Jennings’s ex-wife.” Then, looking right at me, he said, “She’s lovely—really lovely.” I said I agreed and thanked him, and he said, “Shows good taste on your part, but I don’t know about the women.” I wanted to say, “I’ll tell you my secrets later, Mr. President,” but looking at his watch Sandy pulled the discussion back to the reason for the meeting.

If Holbrooke had told Clinton that a certain Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky—not a Rhodes Scholar, not on the call, not on the president’s peace mission—had gone down the mountain, rescued the wounded, and found the remains of the dead, there would have been a subtle deflation over the line, and the origin myth might have never been born, and with it the American drive for peace. Holbrooke, who loved history, told the kind of story that history loves.

Banky knew that this wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and in 2002, having been passed over for promotion, he retired as a lieutenant colonel, unable to lay to rest the suspicion that his army career ended because “Colonel Banky had disappeared.”

They were cut from similar Foreign Service cloth—cerebral and mordantly witty.

As for Izetbegovic, Clark was more his kind of American—solid, respectful. Holbrooke’s intensity seemed to bring out the madness in Bosnian leaders, and Izetbegovic didn’t trust him. He and Holbrooke talked by paying each other false compliments—“Mr. President, you are absolutely right, but…”—so they could never become partners like Holbrooke and Milosevic.

But she knew many Serbs who helped Muslims, including the man who dragged her sister over a bridge across the siege line to safety. When her neighbors on the rooftop cheered the air strikes, the woman pointed out that innocent people would also be killed.

Holbrooke let him go on, enjoying the parley, and then always brought them back to the war. He would step out to take calls—taking calls during meals was one of his favorite shows of status—and come back to say that it was the White House on the phone, though Hill and the others thought the calls were probably from Kati.

And yet this mix of the outsized and drab—this American, specifically midwestern atmosphere, at once banal and imposing and earnest—it told the gilded palaces of Europe: you have the history and the beauty, but you failed to end this war on your continent. Nothing happened until the Americans got involved—until the uncouth, sleepless Holbrooke barged in.

Washington, which has an animate and collective mind, considered Madeleine Albright more solid than brilliant, a politically savvy tactician rather than a serious strategist.

Pax Americana began to decay at its very height. If you ask me when the long decline began, I might point to 1998. We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. Imagine a president careless enough to stumble into his enemies’ trap and expend his power on a blue dress. Imagine a superpower so confident of perpetual peace and prosperity that it felt able to waste a whole year on Oval Office cocksucking.

Holbrooke met one-on-one with more than a hundred members of Congress. Most of them had never sat down with a cabinet member and were flattered by the attention of a diplomatic star.

And they were happily married. At least he was, and in his case an affair didn’t disprove it. The younger woman merely aroused an appetite in a class where affairs were practically expected. He was still gone on Kati.

Holbrooke didn’t quite fall in love with Afghanistan. He was too American to go native anywhere. The only foreign language he ever learned was French, which he spoke fluently with a heavy New York accent, and when he bought local artifacts it was to give them away as gifts, not to furnish his own houses. He fell for problems, not countries, and it was the problem of Afghanistan that began to consume him.

They called themselves Taliban—“students.”

Karzai began to sound like a nationalist—not an aggressive one like Milosevic, but more like Diem, proud and resentful, with the humiliated anger that a poor man feels toward a rich man whose help he sought.

“I am deeply torn about this,” he wrote in his diary. “An undefined job is like entering a room in which all the seats are taken, then insisting that everyone move to make room…Everyone says I must take this job, and I probably will. But with no great enthusiasm or hope I can make much of it, given its difficulties.—My ability to get something done will depend on H + BO willingness to listen to my views—and I am worried on that score.”

Haqqani would set about to teach Holbrooke how to see through Pakistan’s deceptions and self-deceptions.

“Your problem is you care about substance,” Holbrooke warned Rubin. “Government is all about process.” And he told Nasr, “I want you to learn nothing from government. This place is dead intellectually. It does not produce any ideas—it’s all about turf battles and checking the box. Your job is to break through all this. Anybody gives you trouble, come to me.” Once their security clearances came through, Nasr would advise Holbrooke on Pakistan and Rubin—who knew Karzai well—on Afghanistan.

But if Rubin condescended in any way to Clinton, she wouldn’t listen to a thing he said. Holbrooke had noticed Rubin’s habit of speaking arrogantly to people he thought knew less than he did. “Okay, I get it,” Rubin said. “Funny, I heard exactly the same thing about you.” “See—that’s just what I’m talking about.”

He wasted no time on greetings or small talk. He was, Holbrooke thought, the opposite of Bill Clinton—disciplined like a corporate boss, comfortable giving orders, impatient, sometimes cold. Obama had the remoteness of an introvert who didn’t pretend affection any more than he’d lie about having read your book. His sense of integrity depended on refusing to backslap. He saved his warmth for the few who really generated it—his family, his old friends. The distance he kept from his advisors gave him a power Clinton never had. Still, Holbrooke wished he’d smile or laugh now and then.

But in fact Obama had a distaste for Holbrooke, almost a physical repulsion that made him go cold.

Government had grown specialized, compartmentalized, and that suited Obama, who was a stickler for orderly process—a technocrat disguised as a visionary.

Every president needs a loyalist who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks as long as the boss has his back, which gives his actions a higher blessing than ordinary morality.

If his interlocutor is another American not in his chain of command, his lack of patience when he isn’t speaking is palpable.

Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

Some people love to hate on David Brooks. And his latest book, The Second Mountain, offers opportunity for his haters to hate: It’s a book about morality and values, in large part fueled by his own personal transformation over the past decade, including a decision to split from his wife and then, later, to marry his research assistant 20 years his junior. His critics are making hay over this aspect of his personal story. Personally, I find Brooks’ personal life not essential to understanding and even agreeing with the arguments in the book. Further, I’m not sure why divorce and re-marriage (even to someone younger than you) ought to subject someone to ridicule. So, I both enjoyed the book, and do not judge Brooks’ personal life.

I find the “two mountains” premise simple yet deep: The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning in life:

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

This resonates personally, not that I’ve necessarily conquered any mountain yet in my life. It also resonates when I think about my friends later in life who are very much at the top of a career mountain but are still searching for…something. The Buddhist idea that getting what you want won’t make you happy — this truth, if indeed true, is incredibly profound. And it seems true.

Brooks lays out a bunch of interesting researched stories, personal anecdotes, and research snippets to make his case that leading a more purposeful life requires intentionality if you are to overcome the natural order of shallowness. For Brooks, part of the journey to a deeper life involved religion, and becoming a “confused Christian” in addition to his Judaism. The most compelling stories to me were about people who prioritized service and volunteerism in their lives.

Here are some of my highlights from the Kindle edition.


There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.

It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.

I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.

We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. That’s one of the problems with being stuck on the first mountain: You can’t even see what the second mountain offers.

This is the sudden bursting of love that you see, for example, on the face of a mother when she first lays eyes on her infant. Dorothy Day captured it beautifully: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms….No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

As Haidt notes, powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration. These moments of elevation are energizing. People feel strongly motivated to do something good themselves, to act, to dare, to sacrifice, to help others. When people

All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air.

If this sense of lostness can happen to a Tolstoy, then it can happen to anybody. After all, the rest of us can be haunted by the idea that we haven’t accomplished as much as we could. But Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived and knew it. Wealth and fame and accomplishment do not spare anybody from the valley.

This is a telos crisis. A telos crisis is defined by the fact that people in it don’t know what their purpose is. When this happens, they become fragile. Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.” If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse.

A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being. And there are huge benefits in leaving the center of things and going off into the margins.

The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer.

Think about it: Almost every movie you’ve ever seen is about somebody experiencing this intense sense of merging with something, giving themselves away to something—a mission, a cause, a family, a nation, or a beloved.

Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up success after success, or just being thoroughly loved, but for most of us the process is different: We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love.

I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table. It’s the stage on which we turn toward one another for love like flowers seeking the sun.
It is a paradox that when people are finding themselves they often have a sensation that they are letting go and surrendering themselves. You meet a person in need. At first you just commit to help them a little. An hour a week. It’s no big deal. But then you get to know and care about the person, and the hooks of commitment are set. Now you’ll do what needs to be done. At this point you just let go of the wheel. You stop asking, What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me? You respond.

When they are working with the homeless or the poor or the traumatized, they are laboring alongside big welfare systems that offer services but not care. These systems treat people as “cases” or “clients.” They are necessary to give people financial stability and support, but they can’t do transformational change. As Peter Block, one of the leading experts on community, puts it, “Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.”

One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.

Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, “to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy observes.

Technical, book knowledge, Oakeshott writes, consists of “formulated rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned.” Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity—an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.

Eighty-three percent of all corporate mergers fail to create any value for shareholders, and these mergers are only made after months and years of analysis. When making the big choices in life, as L.A. Paul puts it, “You shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into.”

In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying “whether or not,” the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options. Maybe the question is not breaking up with Sue or not; it’s finding a new way to improve your relationship.

You can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”

“I don’t really know of many happy marriages. I know a lot of marriages where parents love their kids.”
J. B Priestley once observed that there is probably no talk quite so delightful as the talk between two people who are not yet in love, but who might fall in love, and are aware that each has hidden reserves waiting to be explored.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote.

Neuroticism, Tashiro continues, is what you want to avoid. It seems exciting and dramatic at first, but neurotic people are tense, moody, prone to sadness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger and anxiety with great force. “Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent and unstable relationships with others, including family and friends. They also tend to be prone to what looks like bad luck, but with time, one often sees that there are ways that their neuroticism evokes unfortunate

John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.”

Emotional knowledge, Roger Scruton argues, is knowing what to feel in certain situations—so that you can be properly disgusted by injustice, properly reverent before an act of self-sacrifice, properly sympathetic in friendship, and properly forbearing when wronged.

One morning, for example, I was getting off the subway in Penn Station in New York at rush hour. I was surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work in long lines. Normally in those circumstances you feel like just another ant leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe. Normally the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people. They were living souls. Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. Souls in each and every person, illuminating them from the inside, haunting them, and occasionally enraptured within them, souls alive or numb in them; and with that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.

Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion; it is a way of understanding. “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.”

Then, as now, I try to hire people who have some progression on their résumé that doesn’t make sense by the conventional logic of the meritocracy. I want to see that they believe in something bigger than the conventional definition of success.

There is a Muslim saying, Whatever you think God is, He is not that.

I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.

Later in life, Buechner found himself amid young Christians who spoke confidently about God as if they talked to Him all the time, and He talked back. God told them to pursue this job and not that one, and to order this at the restaurant and not that. He was dumbstruck. He wrote that if you say you hear God talking to you every day on every subject, you are either trying to pull the wool over your own eyes or everybody else’s. Instead, he continues, you should wake up in your bed and ask, “Can I believe it all again today?” Or, better yet, ask yourself that question after you’ve scanned the morning news and seen all the atrocities that get committed. If your answer to that question of belief is “yes” every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means, Buechner writes. “At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

One of the signature facts of the Internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew. The average American lives eighteen miles from his or her mother. The typical college student enrolls in a college fifteen miles from home. A study of Facebook friends nationwide found that 63 percent of the people we friend live within one hundred miles. Americans move less these days, not more.

Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: What can I do to make myself happy?

 The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and distrust. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve got a long backlog of books to blog about. Here are some highlights from recent reads.

1. Ties by Domenico Starnone

A wonderful novel about marriage, affairs, and family life, written by the person who’s rumored to be have a relationship with Elena Ferrante.

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s introduction is worth the price of admission on its own. Here’s Lahiri:

Love is a key word in Ties, a term that is questioned, redefined, shunned, treasured, maligned. At one point Vanda says that love is merely “a container we stick everything into.” It is, in essence, a hollow vessel, a placeholder that justifies our behaviors and choices. A notion that consoles us, that cons us more often than not.

And then Lahiri goes on:

Ties looks coldly at the price of freedom and happiness. It both celebrates and castigates Dionysian states of ecstasy, of abandon. And though happiness often involves linking ourselves to other people—in other words, stepping outside the confines of ourselves—it is something, in the final analysis, that characters experience privately, alone.

From the book itself, now. How our busyness keeps memory and remorse at bay:

the tight mesh of the days—meetings, rivalries, permanent tensions, small defeats, small victories, trips for work, kisses and embraces in the evening, at night, in the morning: a perfect antidote for keeping memory and remorse at bay—slackened imperceptibly.

On how affairs start:

At every opportunity—I said to myself—I could have a lover: It’s like the rain, a drop collides randomly with another drop and forms a rivulet. All you had to do was insist on that initial curiosity, and the curiosity would become attraction, the attraction would grow and lead to sex, sex would call for repetition, repetition would establish a habit, a need.

…I’m not sure of the reasons why I behaved this way. Certainly the sport of seduction, sexual curiosity, and the impression (unfounded) that each flirtation reawakened lost creativity all played a role. But I prefer a motivation that’s more elusive, and also more true: I wanted to prove to myself that in spite of having reformed the old couple, in spite of having returned to the family, in spite of putting a wedding band back on my finger, I was free, that I no longer had real ties.

2. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

A surprisingly engaging memoir from a woman in her early 40’s who’s unmarried and childless, and the swirl of emotions and decision points surrounding those two facts.

On motherhood:

Parents, especially women, have a habit of talking about motherhood as though it were an exotic mystical land where everything is dazzling; as if they’d walked through a closet and the world has suddenly gone Technicolor. Or at least that’s how it often felt, listening to them from the shores of childless land. With each breakfast rush and school run and nighttime snuggle, I was traveling further and further into that land, if only as a tourist. It did not feel mystical, unless you count the hallucinatory effect of having no sleep. But it was electrifying. There was a charge in this I could not deny, a sense of propulsion and deep, absolute necessity.

On having kids — it tells you what you’re going to do over 20+ years, and ensures you’ll always feel at least somewhat important:

“This is why people have babies,” I said, “because it’s exhausting not to know what you’re supposed to do next. A baby is basically a nonnegotiable map for the next two decades.

…Ambition is ambition; like running water it has to go somewhere, and this was a place I could understand it going. The truth was, there was some brief relief to that picture: on a very basic level I would know exactly what I was supposed to do every day, and it would always be important to someone. I’d never have to wonder over my own necessity or whether what I was doing was worthwhile.

On her close friend getting married, and how that upends their friendship, and what she would have liked to say — with all the attendant complexities — as a wedding toast:

I wasn’t envious of Mauri. If anything, I was envious of our past lives together, and I was mourning a life I was losing. The resentment, I’d realized, was rooted in the fact that I never had any control over this upending of my life. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to do anything but silently accept it. The fact that no one acknowledged that I had anything to be upset about made it all that much worse. It was hard work to root yourself so deeply in life that you could still love people and rely on them, knowing at any point they could make decisions that would leave you scrambling to find solid ground again. This was the better or worse of friendship, undeclared. What I wanted was for there to exist some way for me to say I’m happy and sad and not jealous all at the same time, and also This is a loss and is still beautiful. Maybe that was the wedding toast. We are really the ones giving you away. And it’s hard. And I will miss our life. And I am still so happy for your happiness. And so proud of you.

No one knows what you’re missing when you pick one path over another:

But it seemed to me that going through life making decisions on what I might possibly feel in a future that may or may not come about was a bad way to live. I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

3. Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates has his lovers and his haters. I’m neither, by virtue of not having read his full canon. But I really enjoyed his most famous book. There are so many poetic lines it’s hard to do justice without pasting 50 excerpts below. Suffice to say it was one of the more powerful accounts of the role race plays in the American experience that I have ever read.

You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

I have my work. I no longer feel it necessary to hang my head at parties and tell people that I am “trying to be a writer.” And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, “Are we niggers and what does this mean?”

4. Normal People by Sally Rooney

The acclaimed novel by the very young Irish writer. The dialogue simmers with authenticity and, in these exchanges between the few main characters, you are taken along in a basic growing-up-and-going-to-college story. The novel has an addictive quality.

Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

He’s aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to. She wouldn’t tell anyone. He finds it strangely comforting, and allows himself to think about what it would be like. Hey, he would say quietly. Lie on your back, okay? And she would just obediently lie on her back. So many things pass secretly between people anyway. What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all.

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.

5. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

A brisk, informative, unadorned tour through the disastrous first few months of the Trump Presidency, overseen by one ignoramus after the other.

6. Lying by Sam Harris

A short e-book that makes the case for never lying, inclusive of white lies. I found it interesting, as always with Harris, but not totally convincing.

Book Review: An American Marriage

“Everyone who reads novels has read An American Marriage,” she told me. I guess I’m behind, I thought.

So I downloaded the book on my Kindle, and got hooked. When I finished the book a couple weeks later, I stared off into the distance for about a full minute. Which I guess in the sign that something really sunk in.

It’s a wonderful story, compellingly told from different viewpoints. The primary theme is marriage and its discontents (and contents). Other themes include criminal justice and wrongful imprisonment (the main character Roy, wrongfully accused of rape) and the colors of the American South. The writing is straightforward but often beautiful.

A good chunk of the book is told via letters, sent from prison, between husband and wife. It’s an incredibly effective technique for conveying the intimacy of love — and doubt.

The final letter contains my favorite line: “My prayer for you is for peace, which is something you have to make. You can’t just have it.”

Other highlighted sentences below. Highly recommended.


Still, the truth is that there was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.

It was a wonderful feeling to be grown and yet young. To be married but not settled. To be tied down yet free.

“November 17,” I said before she could complete her thought. Other couples use safe words to call a time-out from rough sex, but we used it as a time-out from rough words. If either of us says “November 17,” the anniversary of our first date, then all conversation must cease for fifteen minutes. I pulled the trigger because I knew that if she said one more word about my mama, one of us would say something that we couldn’t come back from. Celestial threw up her hands. “Fine. Fifteen minutes.”

One of the hurdles of adulthood is when holidays become measuring sticks against which you always fall short. For children, Thanksgiving is about turkey and Christmas is about presents. Grown up, you learn that all holidays are about family, and few can win there.

But a man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe and the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.

As I watched her walk away, I made note of everything about her that I didn’t admire. I ignored the devotion that she wore like a cape, I paid no heed of her strength or hardworking beauty. I sat there thinking of all I didn’t love about her, too angry to even say good-bye.