The Good Fight, Emily The Criminal, Natalia Ginzberg, and Alessandro Manzoni

Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg - Nowadays when I'm looking for something to read, I just look at the New Directions back catalogue. They're a superb small press that brings over tons of European writers. I love New Directions' tastes. They're aesthetes. They prefer writers who are known as stylists or formal innovators. Their books tend to be short and very compressed. This 'novel' clocks in at, I believe, under a 100 pages in the print version (though I read it as an ebook). Ginzburg is a very famous Italian writer, and she has a devoted following in the US amongst the type of people who read New Directions books. This is the first of hers that I've completed (I was assigned one in my MFA, but I didn't do the reading that month.) This one begins with a wife killing her husband, and then the wife briefly retells the story of their four year marriage. At first I was like, this wife is very flat, there's not much to her. But that's the essence of the book. The wife has a dry heart: she's a woman waiting for a man to give her life meaning. Even though she doesn't love her husband, the idea that he loves her is sustaining. She's happy to finally be wanted. And when she discovers, early in the book, that his love isn't as strong as she imagined, it's a terrible, gnawing truth that eats away at her. The murder at the end is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. It's entirely because this woman really doesn't have anything of her own, she has no self to fall back upon.

The Good Fight - I wouldn't exactly say that The Good Wife or The Good Fight are underrated. Both have been critically acclaimed and did well for themselves. But they're not rated as highly as they should be. These are some of the best shows of the last decade. The Good Fight did itself a lot of favors by focusing on Diane Lockhart and on her partners in a Black law firm (yes, it's absurd that Christine Baranski has joined a Black law firm) as Trump comes into power. The show leans into the increasing lawlessness of our times (amongst other things, the Chicago PD's secret prison makes several appearances). I finally got around to watching the last season, which was great, although it lacked some of the wild energy of the previous two seasons. Was just sad to see it end! Oh, one area where the show shined was in the genuine rapport between Diane and her partners. As opposed to the constant conniving and back-biting in The Good Wife, the partners in The Good Fight are largely teammates. Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald (who joined the cast in the second season) are really great whenever they share a scene (and even better in the season four ARC where they join a secret all-woman revolutionary cadre).

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell Tales (Disney Plus)- I have absolutely no idea why I chose to watch this film. I saw a clip on the internet of the scene where the female lead, Kaya Scodelario, banters with Johnny Depp while they're both facing execution. It looked fun, so I watched it. The movie reminded me of the persistently surprising fact that these Pirates movies are actually good. They've got some solid world-building, with very charming performances, even from minor characters. This movie was much stronger in the first half, when the various characters are knocking around trying to figure out what the story is going to be. Once they get together and start doing action, you realize that there's no real character arc for any of them, and it gets a little stale.

Emily The Criminal (Netflix)- I love crime films. I went through one heist film stage where I just watched a ton of heist movies. This falls squarely into the lo-fi, small-scale criminal genre (a la Hustle and Flow or Uncut Gems). Just a regular, slightly-shady person getting sucked in deeper and deeper. The problem with movies and TV shows of this type is that the characters usually have some character flaw (a temper, impulsiveness, drug abuse), but they rarely have any off-setting competence. Like if you watch Weeds or Breaking Bad it's impossible to escape the notion sometimes these people just aren't very good at being criminals and maybe they are a bit overly entitled.

This movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as a twentysomething art school grad with $70,000 of credit card debt, skirts that line. Plaza at times seems to be the loose cannon, the person who gets too greedy and can't control herself and ruins a good thing. All of her problems in the credit card fraud business seem to be self-created: a result of her breaking the rules. But in the end the movie turns that into a strength, and it complicates its own world-building and its own view of criminality. Highly recommend. Plus, she has a lot of chemistry with the male lead, played by Theo Rossi, who inducts her into the life of crime. He's just such a sweet guy, from the first moment he's onscreen you just want to kiss him and bring him home to mama. Also Aubrey Plaza is very attractive and for some reason doesn't wear a bra for most of the movie.

"Alessandro Manzoni" in London Review of Books -- I don't have too much to say about it, but this article, if anything, undersells how wonderful The Betrothed is.1 It's just a genuinely good time, akin to War and Peace or Anna Karenina or David Copperfield. I came upon the book completely by accident, and it was fantastic to have this big, wonderful 19th century novel to get lost in. I really like the second half, where the plague hits. This article is written by Tim Parks, who's a great fiction writer and translator in his own right. He translated Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, which I also read recently and adored.

  1. I first wrote about The Betrothed way back in 2016

Reviews of books by Dag Solstad, Julien Benda, and Mary Wollstonecraft

I have read ALOT of books recently, and I wanted to get back into doing that thing where I write capsule book reviews, so let's start:

Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad - The only bad thing about this Norwegian novel is its uninspired title, which I assume comes from its place in the author's ouevre. Otherwise it's a beautifully told story about a man who's four years divorced from his second wife, living in a small city, working as the treasurer of that city, and wondering how he ended up in this place, with this job, these friends, and this life. He feels so put-out by the randomness, feels so much as if this life has lived him, and he has not made any choices. Beautiful character portraits, particularly of his second wife and of the son from his first marriage. Dag Solstad has a cold, calculating voice that at times seems distant from his characters, but is actually very close to them and very deeply felt. Absolutely bonkers ending: won't spoil it, but it's so strange. Here's a quote:

But no sooner had the Society’s members left the house than he blew his top, allowing all his jealousy to emerge. Turid Lammers thought so anyway. In reality it was nothing but a pretence on his part. He did it for her sake.

he did not dare entertain the thought that Turid might display all of her feminine charm vis-à-vis the evening’s chosen member of the Society without her partner becoming beside himself with jealousy. He could not bear the thought of causing her so much pain

He knew what he was doing. He had made up his mind to live with Turid Lammers at Kongsberg. As the Kongsberg town treasurer. In his leisure time he was involved in amateur theater. His love for her was so great that he could have gone mad out of jealousy. Had he not renounced everything in order to cultivate the temptation in all its intensity, for what was left, after all, except this intensity? But he was in the know. He knew what he was doing. He fully realized that, after living with Turid for seven years, his chief contribution to preserving their relationship consisted in these outbursts of fake jealousy. He had seen through her. He had no illusions about her.

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad- Got really into old Dag and read one of his other books, about a high school teacher who, after twenty-five years, has a breakdown while trying to explicate Ibsen's play The Wild Duck to his uncaring class. Another beautiful book--it's roughly divided into third. The first is at the high school. The second is him reminiscing about his college friend, a genius philosopher who became a New York ad-man, and the last third about his increasing fury at the lack of intellect in his life, and at how the world seemingly has no use for his mind. Definitely white male rage, but so subtle and well-drawn. Here's a little quote that I loved:

There they sat with their soft, puppyish, youthful faces, their—as they thought—horrible pimples, and with a confused and inadequate inner life filled as likely as not with the most soapy daydreams, actually feeling offended because they were bored, and he was the one they were offended by because it was he, the teacher, who was boring them.

Treason of the Intellectuals by Julien Benda- The most important thing to realize about this book is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, a whole wave of intellectuals, largely in sociology and history and other social sciences, started developing the idea that nations and civilizations were real things, with real durable characteristics. Julien Benda did not like this! He thought it was a betrayal of everything an intellectual (what he calls a 'clerk') ought to stand for. He thought that a clerk ought to champion universality and the idea that there was a commonality to all men. To him, the idea of clerks using their knowledge to advance narrow, political aims--the aims of nations--was abhorrent. As he put it, there've always been kings and statesmen who advanced the cause of states and who preached war and conflict. And there've always been priests and scholars who have opposed them. Thus, "For two thousand years, mankind did evil, but it honored the good." In his view, the modern crop of clerk had demolished this history, by using the tools of an clerk to do evil. An incredibly powerful polemic.

From all this it follows that the “clerk” is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the “clerk” is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind

Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft - I'm gonna be frank, I didn't really love it. Reading the book, I realized it only made sense in the context of a world where every woman capable of reading this book would probably have hired help to do her domestic labor. Upper-class women were freed from the necessity of taking care of (or even nursing) their own children, but they weren't allowed to do anything else. As such a cult of beauty and sentimentality had grown up: women's only role was to be pleasing to men. And it's this idea that women are meant to be decorous and pleasing--purely ornamental--that Wollstonecraft inveighs against. But in the modern world, there's an easy response to her critiques. One could easily say, "Women aren't purposeless; women are supposed to care for the domestic sphere." That's not something for which Wollstonecraft has an easy response. Indeed, in her rants against seeking love, against flirtation, against fancy dress and ornament, and against reading novels, she often ends up sounding like a modern conservative. Which she wasn't, obviously (she herself had a child out of wedlock and was deeply sentimental in her personal life). The book just seemed very rooted in its own time and place. At times it almost seemed like a personal argument she was having with Rousseau (a writer who deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, but who obviously deeply offended her with his extreme, even for the time, misogyny). The Benda book, described above, actually felt similarly rooted in a given time and place, but it was much shorter, and it provided a much clearer description of the problem.

Articles I liked: Paris Review interviews of Philip Larkin, Dag Solstad, Sam Lipsyte; the NYRB reconsiders V.S. Naipaul, and others

I also have a strong desire to become one of those people who links to articles, so that's what I'm gonna do.

"The Trouble With Money" in London Review of Books - The economics I learned in college wasn't very self-reflective, on a philosophical level. It never worried about the nature of money or what it represented. Money was merely a medium of exchange: a thousand dollars equals a thousand dollars worth of butter equals a thousand dollars worth of guns. They are the same thing. But a whole class of late 19th and early 20th century economists devoted their time to grappling with the concept of money. What did it mean? How did it function? And not just practically, but psychologically as well. Loved this article on John Maynard Keynes, who wrote about the death-grip money has on our psyches, and the way that after a certain point, saving can become a mania that interferes with the production of goods and services.

"Art of Fiction No. 230: Dag Solstad" in The Paris Review - At various times in my life I've had the ambition to read all the Paris Review interviews. But I inevitably realize that if I haven't read and enjoyed the author, then I don't really care about what they have to say. I really liked Solstad's interview, just as I really like his novels! He seems to have his head on his shoulders--very practical writer, who seems to enjoy his work. I was however amused by his 3-1-3 schedule, where after every third day of writing, he gets blind drunk for one full day. LOL.

"Art of Poetry No. 30: Philip Larkin" by The Paris Review - Larkin is one of the few poets that I truly love. I deeply enjoyed this mildly grumpy interview of his, where he describes his solitary life, how he hasn't read poetry in years, how his only encounters with Auden and Eliot were awkward and terrifying, and how he basically doesn't know anything of life outside Hull, where he's lived for the last twenty-five years. What a genius he was.

"Art of Fiction No. 242: Sam Lipsyte" in The Paris Review - Another deeply likeable interview. Just enjoyed playing around in his mind, same as I enjoy his fiction! No great revelations. I just like the guy!

"2022 was not the year of consilience" by Erik Hoel - I subscribe to Erik's substack. He's both a researcher into consciousness and a novelist. Which is to say, he's researching consciousness from the inside and out. In this post he talks about attempting to bridge the science / art divide, and how most of the resistance to that idea seems to come from artists. I thought he was smart in talking about the one thing scientists can do to maybe help heal that divide, which is not be reductive about art. Even if you can explain some things about art using science, there's still a phenomonological level to it that'll never be directly accessible to science.

"Naipaul's Unreal Africa" in The New York Review of Books - I really like Naipaul's work. I've read a lot of it. His best and most humane books are his early ones, set in Trinidad, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas. His later books, especially those set in Africa, are interesting and evocative, but extremely cruel. He was a cruel man, and he was undeniably racist. This author reexamines the legacy of his Booker-nominated A Bend in the River, and the ways its racism would be received if published today, instead of in 1979.

"A New King for the Congo" in The New York Review of Books - This essay, written by Naipaul and published in the NYRB in the 70s, is an example of the way he wrote about Africa (it's also discussed in the article above)

Spotlight on: anthologies of 1950s romance comics

In the early days of my blog, I mostly wrote about things that interested very few people, like Tolstoy, Richard Yates, my own writing statistics, etc. But nowadays I've reached the point where if I'm going to write at all, I only feel compelled to write about things that are of interest to absolutely nobody.

Case in point, I've recently become very interested in romance comics. These are Western comics, usually published between about 1948 and 1972 with contemporary romantic plots. They were written by the usual comics regulars--the same guys and same companies that did crime / horror / superhero comics--but they were intended for an audience of women and girls. At one point they were extremely popular, and they're now mostly for the extremely different sexual and romantic politics they showcase.

Visually, they're most well-known through pop art satirization, as in this well-known Roy Lichtenstein image:

I first got into romance comics through an NYRB sale: curator Dan Nadel had put together a collection of Ogden Whitney's romance comics, called Return To Romance. I immediately found the collection captivating. The stories were really odd. The pacing was always a bit off, a little like a Richard Yates short story. They came to unexpected climaxes and then lingered. Heroes turned out to be villains and vice versa. The politics were old-fashioned of course, but more striking was the dreamy, time-free quality of the narration.

Unfortunately I misplaced my copy of Return to Romance, so can't show you some shots, but I was utterly gripped, and I immediately was like...must find more romance comics.

But what I found was most compilations of romance comics hadn't exercised the taste that Dan Nadel had. See, there's two ways of compiling a reprint anthology. The first is to select representative samples of the genre; and the second is to select striking or unusually good examples of the genre. The first is the academic or archivist's path; the second is that of the real fan. Nadel had found a romance comic artist he thought was unusually good and reprinted him, but some of the other notable compilations, in particular Romance Without Tears and Agonizing Love, didn't seem to have exercised the same selectivity.

I found the books disappointing and trite. A lot of times the stories felt extremely by-the-numbers and too often they relied on misdirection (like a story about a girl who's seeing another guy while she waits for her fiance to come home from the war, and her friends all gossip about her, but it turns out she's just learning to drive! The guy is just her driving instructor!) Or any story where it's like, a girl really likes a guy, but he seems to like someone else, but really he likes her, and there's nothing more to it. Also, both volumes were reprinted with glossy pages (romance comics were originally matte paper) and the images just didn't seem right.

Recently, however, while I was shelving and organizing my library, I revisited the other collections I'd found and some of them were actually unusually good! So since I didn't want anyone else to waste their time and money, I decided to write this blog on the off chance someone in ten years searches for "best romance comics anthology or compilation."

The Winners

The best compilation I found, besides the Ogden Whitney one, was one called Marvel Romance, which featured Stan Lee and Jim Steranko and John Romita Sr. and a bunch of the other usual Marvel guys, writing romance comics! What distinguishes these from any other collection is that all the comics are from the sixties and early 70s, so the sexual politics are liberated, the skirts are shorter, and everyone speaks in groovy, far-out slang. They're a ton of fun!

This is about a high school kid who's in love with her teacher.

This comic is from a story about a go-go party girl who gives up the love of her life!

The other compilation was one of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's work over the course of about ten years on a comic called Young Romance that was one of America's best-selling comics. At one point, it was selling a million copies an issue, and it reputedly started the romance comics trend. There are some good ones here too, often featuring women who make mistakes, like the girl who sets out to steal another girl's fiance. My favorite was the girl who's choosing between two brothers, but her dad has a third candidate in mind (the foreman of his lumber mill), and she's like nuhuh dad we agree on almost everything, but imma go my own way on this, and then eventually she's like DAD YOU WERE RIGHT, FOREMAN HANK IS MY FAVORITE AFTER ALL.

The Kirby and Simon compilations (there's another one called Young Romance 2 that's equally good) are also the best put together, they're printed on thick cream-colored matte paper, and they've been re-colorized and sharpened. They don't look like scans, the way most of the other compilations do.

This story is about a by-the-book numbers guy, an accountant, who's managed to find the perfect match--but he's thrown off balance by the flightly sculptress who lives next door.

It's hard to say what I like so much about the romance comics. The plots tend to blur together after awhile--ultimately the comics fell into two categories: diverting and unreadable. The unreadable ones I can't tell you about, because I skipped them. The diverting ones were the ones where there was a hint of insuperable conflict at the beginning. Often this was a difference in social status. In one case, it was because the woman was an ex-con. In other, she was married to a former gangster. In one really good Kirby / Simon story (I believe), a high school girl was in love w her 10+ year older teacher.

But I also really enjoyed the art. If you look at it too long, the faces start to seem haunting and expressionless, which may or may not be a part of the appeal, but I liked that this was a nation's dream about itself: all these brunettes with cinched-waists and wavy-haired blondes and ken dolls in swimming shorts. All these ambitious young men looking to move up while retaining their integrity. All these working women, longing for a husband. All the fast cars and soda shops, I don't know, it was an interesting visual jumble.

And the narration also has a haunting, confessional quality. Every story (almost) is framed as a 'true tale' that's merely being 'told to' the writer (who isn't credited as a writer, the story is instead written 'as told to' Stan Lee or Joe Simon or whoever). On the first page the women often face the reader and describe their conundrum. Throughout the story you hear their internal monologue, the tone of their longing, as they go through their day.

I kept thinking someone should make a TV series that takes place in the world of fifties romance comics, but of course nobody would be interested in that (not even me, perhaps!) And also it would just look like the first year of Mad Men.

My father in law is visiting. I was like, when were you born. He said, "1950". And the comics I was reading were originally published in 1950. These comics were out-dated and passe even fifty-five years ago, when he was a teen. Now they are truly relics. But they're still entertaining! Still worth one's time not just on a sociological level, but also as works of art.

On a sidenote, it's interesting that the two strongest compilations were those that were, essentially, trading on the reputations of writers better known for their superhero work. There were lots of other writers, like Ogden Whitney, who were best known for their romance comic work, and I do with someone would go through the thousands of romance comics published and find the best stories, irrespective of writer. But I have a feeling that the audience for that book would basically nobody. But maybe this forthcoming anthology of the best of British romance comics will prove to be what I'm looking for!

Honorable mention
Before I found the Kirby and the Marvel compilations, my favorite was this one from EC comics: Modern Love. The stories are good, but the paper is glossy, and I found the art style to be a bit exaggerated and not totally to my taste (example below):

This is about a woman whose aunt wants her to marry a rich guy.


Golden Age Superman is my favorite Superman (even more than All-Star Superman)

Hello friends, I've been reading the very first superman comics, in a compilation from DC comics called: Superman in the Golden Age. It is excellent--one of the best comics I've ever read, and I personally liked it even better than my all-time favorite Superman story, All-Star Superman, which I wrote about a few years ago.The thing about the original Superman (he was first invented in 1938 and was an immediate hit) was that when he started, there were no supervillains. Superman was just a guy who was really, really strong and invulnerable. You didn't know his origin story at all. He worked by day as cowardly Clark Kent, who shirks from all conflict, and through his job as a reporter he hears about various wrongs, and then he quickly transforms into Superman and rights them!

But it's never as simple as just beating up someone or killing them (original Superman does occasionally kill people, though usually only by accident). Instead he creates extremely elaborate schemes to teach people the errors of their ways. So far, in the fourteen issues I've read he has:

  • Solved a hit-and-run problem in Metropolis by running around punishing speeders and by destroying a factory selling substandard cars
  • Helped a circus being shaken down by the mob, by giving the circus a new star attraction to pay its debts: The Superman himself!
  • Interfered in a college football game to prevent match-fixing, by posing as one of the players and leading the team to victory
  • Gone undercover in a prison, to uncover a warden who's abusing the prisoners
  • Taught a lesson to a mining magnate whose mines are unsafe--he leads the magnate down into the mines and traps him there and forces him to try and dig his way out
  • Broken into the governor's mansion with evidence exculpating a woman from murder, so she can be saved from execution with just minutes to spare
  • Helped a hoodlum being sentenced to prison for robbery, by exposing their gang-leader and teaching them that being strong means staying 'clean' (like Superman himself)
  • Stopped a war in central America, by finding the munitions maker who was selling arms to both sides, forcing the munitions maker to enlist as a marine in one of the armies, and making him undergo the horrors of war himself

It's so great. I cannot overstate how much I love him. Every plot is so Rube-Goldbergian. He finds a simple wrong and then spends the equivalent of many days and weeks concocting a plan to teach the wrong-doer their lesson (which usually ends with them agreeing to turn over a new leaf). It's a lot like that show Leverage (where a team of crooks interfere in some ordinary person's life to help them out, usually by blackmailing, stealing from, or framing their opponent). What a great concept! I wonder when Superman evolved away from this?

To be honest, I find the plotlines genuinely affecting, precisely because of how personal they are. Not only does Superman intervene when you have a problem, but he finds a very customized, personal solution to the problem. I think that, more than anything, is what gives the people of Metropolis hope: the idea that someone out there truly cares about them on an individual level.

I also really like the art style. It's very simple. Superman was originally going to be a newspaper strip (and after getting popular, it ran as a newspaper strip for many years), and you can tell, by the simple, stripped-down style. It's strongly reminiscent, actually, of today's indie comics. You can tell that all the penciling and inking is being done by the same person. Sometimes when comics are too realistic (as in the romance comics I posted about) you can get an uncanny-valley situation where the stillness of their face seems a bit unsettling and vacuous. You don't have that problem in Superman. It's cartoonish, but that fits with the story.

On a sidenote, people are sometimes surprised that I like Superman. People find him boring and unrealistic. And a lot of people have tried to humanize Superman-type characters by showing in real life they'd be depressed or racist or haunted by their own powers. And that's totally fine, that's a natural progression. But I think having someone who is genuinely good and caring is great, when done well! There's something about Superman that is just so hopeful--he really thinks that people can change and be better. And to me that's far from boring!

Happy boxing day! Currently reading; thoughts on typora

Hello friends, happy Boxing Day! I'm still using Typora, which is super fun. It's makes writing blog posts so much easier. And it's about as customizable as I'd need or want. A friend said they use Typora for their fiction writing too, which is pretty zany! I'm kind of considering it. I've always found Scrivener to be a bit over-designed for my taste, with too many options and too much customizability.

The sad thing about being a science fiction writer is that you love whizmos and gadgets, but writing is still pretty old-fashioned. The act of composition hasn't been substantially improved since the invention of the word processor (and, I'd argue, it's still essentially the same as it was back when people were composing using pen and paper, but that argument relies heavily on one's definition of the word 'essentially.') So it's always fun to discover a new word processing modality.

You might've noticed that I've been using more links now than I used to. That's because I always found hunting down the links to be a fiddly, annoying process. But with Typora and markdown, whenever I think of something that needs linking, I just surround it with brackets, [like this][]. Then at the end of the document I create a link reference, like this:

[like this]: link goes here.

I think it's pretty nifty. Of course I'll get tired of it eventually, just as one gets tired of most things. But for now it's fun.

In terms of writing I have very little going on, just working on doing the line edits for my young adult book. Then will have to start work on my super secret nonfiction project that I hope to announce in January!

Books I'm Currently Reading

The Husserl I've been reading very slowly for at least a month (am halfway through!) I think it's honestly the best entry-point for Husserl. I believe that I previously read another of his: Ideas. But that felt very internal to some purely philosophical problems of consciousness and epistemology, whereas in this one ties it all in together with the big question: What is it possible to know? And how can we start to breach the boundaries of what we think is possible.

Vindication of the Rights of Man is the work that made Wollstonecraft famous. It's a response to Edmund Burke's Notes on the Revolution in France. Burke's is a foundational conservative document. It may very well be the first elucidation of movement conservatism as an ideology, within a liberal democracy. I read it upwards of ten years ago, so I don't entirely remember what it said, but as I recall, it's a polemic against the concept of radical change. Wollstonecraft's reply is like, you tell us that we're bound by tradition? But where does that stop? When are we allowed to change anything? What makes it striking is the intemperate, personal tone. It's not a matter of academic debate for Wollstonecraft, she goes hard at Burke. I found her extremely convincing. In the years since, we've seen the dangers of revolution, but at the time it's hard to imagine not being in favor of the French Revolution.

The graphic novels are what I've actually been reading the most of. Went through a Brubaker phase. Really like the work, but it's subtle. At first I was like...these are just typical crime stories. But it's something in how he draws this world together and shows how shaky it is, and, moreover, how its generational: how kids grow up with unstable home lives and then they replicate the same patterns as adults (even as they do their best to avoid them). This makes it sound like a work of sociology, and it is, a little bit, sociological. But the characters are also very human. Definitely work that grows on you the more of it you read.

My summary of Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, the popular novel, economic history, and everything else I read this year

Hello friends! Normally at the end of the year I go back through my written log of books and write about the books I 'liked' the best. But this time I'm not gonna do that. Instead I'm just going to go through from memory and talk about whatever struck me the most about my reading this year.

Probably the most influential book I read in the last twelve months was Jurgen Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This book attempts to trace the evolution of what Habermas calls "The Philosophy of the Subject", which is the idea that our perception inherently orders reality, and, as such, by examining the nature of our own experiencing, we can learn fundamental truths about reality, starting from Kant, through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, and terminating in Foucoualt and Derrida.

I wasn't familiar with many of these concepts at the time (though I had read much of Kant), so I didn't understand a lot of what I was reading, but I frequently thought about this book over the next year. See, in the Anglo-American tradition, philosophers turned to logic: the study of how we can determine whether or not a statement is true. But, unfortunately, logic requires inputs. You cannot know, a priori, whether a given statement is true, unless you start with some truths. So as a way of getting to truth, it starts to seem a bit beside the point.

In the continental tradition, they kept searching for sources of validity--sources of those inputs--but continually rejected the idea of empiricism. They wanted some pre-scientific or non-scientific source of truth. Eventually, with fits and starts, they settled on phenomenology: can we find some kind of truth in the nature of experiencing. This is, on the one hand, not subject to empirical investigation, because experience isn't accessible to science (all that's accessible are peoples' linguistic and conceptual descriptions of experience). Secondly, if we're very careful, phenomenology can appear to give us things that are universally true. Now, can we know for a fact that causality truly exists in some way apart from the human brain? No. But we can know that causality is a core part of how we experience the world. The fact of causality--that everything we experience has some cause--is a truth. Of course, this gets us into trouble because it leads to the question of first causes, but Kant was careful to draw a line around what a human is actually capable of experiencing. Once we put the concept of 'cause' outside the realm of direct human experience (like, before the first human ever existed), then it breaks down--it becomes ungrounded.

Anyways, phenomenology is intoxicating because it allows you to say things with absolute certainty: this is what I am experiencing; I am definitely experiencing this thing. This then gets extended into the realm of meaning: this thing definitely means something to me. Science can't assign a meaning to this word or to this concept, but I can. I know what it means. I know for an absolute fact that I'm typing right now on a keyboard. I don't need to prove it logically. It's just self-evident.

And that seems to be intoxicating because we go from the skeptical approach, where we can know nothing, to a much more open approach, where, actually, there's a lot of things we can know! We can know what words mean! We can know what concepts are! We can know what parts of human experience those concepts refer to!

Unfortunately, as the philosophy of the subject progresses, it hits a dead end, because each person tries to create universal truth out of their individual experience, and it's not clear that this is possible. I can say what a word means with absolute certainty, but that doesn't mean it means the same thing to you. I can say with absolute certainty the meaning of a text (to me), but that meaning might not have validity to anyone else.

Habermas attempts to solve this conundrum through his theory of communicative action, which is the core of his philosophy (we can come to agreement, through discussion, about things we subjectively experience in common). I don't know much about that because I didn't read those books. This book is just his tracing, essentially, of the claim to universal knowledge, and the ways that claim gets subverted and eventually turns, over time, into the solipsism and irrationality of a 'critical' approach where, suddenly, the overt meanings of every word and concept are effaced, and now nothing means what you think it means. The philosophy of the subject leads to absolute truth, but it's incommunicable and, taken too far, it becomes irrelevant and sterile.

I often thought of this book as I was reading Hegel over the course of the year. I read three of this books Phenomenology of Spirit, The Greater Logic, and Philosophy of the Right.

I found Hegel pretty frustrating. To put it bluntly, I don't think Hegel makes logical sense. Unlike Kant, who was obscure in a way that later commentators could clear up and explain, Hegel continues to be obscure to this day, because even in their original form, the ideas didn't make logical sense. His insight is that truth is developed through a historical process--essentially, he believes in progress, where over time, knowledge develops and develops and we get closer to the truth. What people fail to understand about Hegel (or willfully refuse to understand, because it's uncomfortable) was that he was a mystic. He believed in a kind of pantheistic notion of the universe, where the universe is one great spirit, and this spirit seeks to know itself. And Mankind is the knowing and thinking part of the spirit, which, through struggle, seeks to understand more and more of its essence, by incorporating more and more of the spirit into its thinking nature. To Hegel, this doesn't occur through a straightforward march of progress, but through a process whereby certain truths come into vogue and are then rejected, and then the rejection is rejected, which produces a new truth. But who is carrying out this process? Is it individual mankind? Or man as a whole? What are the mechanics of it? It's all very unclear.

The most interesting of his books is also the most difficult, Phenomenology of the Spirit is a wildly exciting look at the history of Western thought, and the ways it's shifted and permutated over time, the ways that sometimes it's embodied in an individual and sometimes in a society, and the ways that society, at war with itself, has produced new truth. Its very ambiguity--who is the protagonist here? How are they evolving?--is its strength. It's almost like a work of abstract art or a work of music, where you see certain themes taking on a life of their own and rising and falling. Philosophy of the Right attempts an equal performance when it comes to the nature of the Laws and the state, but it's not quite as bravura, because the answer is so predetermined (Prussia is the culmination of human civilization), The Greater Logic is his 800 page explication of his logical system. I read it so you don't have to--there's no system. Believe me. There is no system. It's so vague and fuzzy. He's more of an artist than a philosopher. He's like one of these provocative thinkers who throws out wild statements and crazy notions, and then is like, but it's all a SCIENCE, man. This is a SCIENCE.

After Hegel I read the three volumes of Marx's Capital. Very worthwhile. I studied Economics in college, and we were taught Neoclassical economics: the updated form of Classical economics that arose specifically to dispute with and disprove Marx. And we were told, implicitly, that Marx was illogical and had no solid empirical basis.

The thing about Marx is that his predictions aren't very different from those under Neoclassical economics. Under Neoclassical economics, in a system of perfect competition there will be no profits, aside from a certain set return to capital, which is necessary for anyone to invest in any productive venture. So "zero profits" under "perfect competition" actually means "four to five percent returns on capital." It's precisely through the division of Economics into macroeconomics (the performance of the economy as a whole) and microeconomics (the performance of individual firms) that Neoclassical economics effaces and ignores Marxist economics. Because Marx begins (in volume 1) with microeconomics, but unlike the typical Neoclassical economist, he looks at what happens to profits after they're generated. How does capital flow through the economy (volume 2) and then how is it eventually reinvested (volume 3). And this process of the flow of capital leads to certain predictions that are pretty intelligent and sound: he predicts ongoing capital accumulation, and an increasing share of production going to capital rather than to labor.

Alongside the purely economic argument, however, is the moral argument that all the returns from production ought to go to labor, and that capitalism, as a force, is nothing more than a way for a certain class to seize control of an increasing share of the returns from production. This is less convincing than his purely economic argument, but not entirely unconvincing. As a moral argument, though, it has to be analyzed like other moral arguments. And he definitely harms his work by not recognizing that he's not making an empirical argument here. Because even Marx admits that capitalist production produces a larger quantity of goods than pre-capitalist production, and that capitalist production is impossible without the accumulation of capital. So why should the accumulation of capital not be encouraged by having some return on capital? His arguments on this score are three-fold.

  1. Excess Means of Production - The means of production are basically the means that produce shit. Under capitalism, the system will focus on making more means of production than people really need, because the means essentially are capital. When you produce means of production (rather than consumer goods), you're producing more wealth, and ultimately capitalism wants to produce wealth, not consumer goods.
  2. Underproduction of Objects for the General Welfare - A concomitant of the means of production being underproduced is that capitalism is capable of producing lots of consumer goods for everyone, but it doesn't, because that doesn't result in increasing wealth for capitalists
  3. Over-exploitation of Labor - For a capitalist, the primary cost is labor. The capitalist will always be driven to pay labor as little as possible, because that is the main source of profits. As a system (through a complex process that's too long to discuss here), capitalism will tend to expropriate more and more of a laborer's production. Essentially, his argument is that because capitalism allows the production of the necessities (the means of subsistence) for less and less money, it can afford to pay workers less and less for a full day's work (under the theory that capital will always drive the cost of labor to barely above the means of subsistence necessary to keep the laborer alive for a day's work).

The first two arguments are moral arguments about societal allocation of resources. How much capital stock is enough? How much is too little? How much of society's production should go to producing luxuries? It's kind of impossible to say, but it's not unreasonable to say that the decision should be made democratically, rather than through the private interest of the owner of capital.

The third argument is what's drawn the most flack, because although later commenters have tried to obfuscate this, Marx's argument against capital does, in some part, rely on the assertion that the life of the laborer under capitalism really, really sucks. And this has not proven to be empirically true. In the long run, real wages haven't fallen. Wages haven't been driven to the means of subsistence. And the share of profits going to labor, while it's sometimes gone down and sometimes gone up, hasn't trended inexorably in one direction.

Western Marxists (who largely tend to be in the humanities rather than in the social sciences) tend to attribute the prosperity of labor (relative to Marx's predictions) to a number of causes, but the main thing they say is, "The collapse just hasn't happened yet!" Lately there's been the concept of 'environmental capitalism' where looting the planet has allowed the inflation of prosperity for everyone. Before that we had the concept of impperialistic capitalism, under which other countries were being looted to allow ordinary people in the West to prosper. Now we also have the concept of Racial Capitalism, under which the continued exploitation of racial minorities creates a surplus for white workers.

Some of course also attribute the relative power of the worker, especially during the first seventy years of the 20th century, to trade unionism, but this ignores the core of Marx's critique, which is both practical and moral. The practical element is that the power of capital is destined to grow, as capital accumulates, while the power of labor will remain static or decrease, so over time capital will overcome any trade union. And, morally, an eight hour day is still slavery: why should the capitalist be allowed to keep any of their illicit gains.

I don't know the answer! It would be awfully convenient for Western Marxists if capitalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions sometimes soon, but it's unclear whether that will happen, and I don't think anyone truly expects it to. Ultimately, although the theoretical core of Marxism has proven to be the most accurate (re: how capital accumulates, how it will destroy other capitals, and how it will distort the state), it's the moral core that has proven the most enticing for intellectuals. People desperately seek the moral clarity Marx offers--the idea that private ownership of means of production is fundamentally wrong and illogical.

But it's precisely this part of his argument that has the least going for it. Even if we accept many of his conclusions about capital acting in such and such a bad way, it's also clear that it's created tremendous wealth and prosperity. Moreover, his conclusions were underpinned by the inevitability of capital's collapse (in a series of financial crises, which would radicalize the working class). It's this certainty of collapse which gave the feeling of eternal Truth to Marxism. If you were Marxist you weren't merely asserting that something was true (i.e. "Labor should get a larger portion of the world's wealth), you were also issuing a warning ("This will happen inevitably. It is the guaranteed end-point of capitalism.") But without that prediction to underpin it, Marxism loses a lot of its rhetorical power, particularly since state Marxism hasn't necessarily resulted in better social or economic well-being than capitalism.

But of course that's why Marxism is more or less dead in the social sciences, as an avowed philosophy, and continues only in the humanities, where people don't really understand the economic logic at play. In the social sciences, however, there's been great work done lately on state capitalism, on organizational capture, rent-seeking, corruption, and other political economy factors that underpin the niceties of the Neoclassical view. However, I would like to say that there's very little in Marx that, per se, doesn't accord with the Neoclassical view. Some say that marginalism--a modification of classical economics in which the prices of goods and labor are set by marginal utility and marginal cost (i.e. how much production will one extra unit of labor provide) has somehow disproved Marx's labor theory of value, but this doesn't really hold up. The whole idea of Marxism is that capital is illusory: all capital is merely someone else's labor. The machine you own isn't really creating anything: it's the laborers who created the machine who are truly, in some philosophical way, responsible for the machine's outputs. I think it's super interesting, and his ideas should be incorporated into economics curricula post-haste.

Okay, that endeded up being really long, but I want to finish by writing about Schopenhauer. I read a few of his books this year: namely The Four-Fold Root and World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Loved Schopenhauer. Marx is a little easier to read than Kant and much easier than Hegel, but Schopenhauer is the first of these philosophers that writes in something approaching plain language. When you read Schopenhauer, you understand him. He writes so straightforwardly.

Because he's so straightforward I have a lot less to write here, but essentially he's one of the first phenomenologists. He's like, what is this nonsense about trying to seek truth outside our individual experience. That's like saying, "I want to know what's true besides all the things that I know are indisputably true". Essentially he's the first in a long line of people trying to pick fights with Descartes. Where Descartes in his Meditations performed the "Cartesian reduction" wherein he said maybe the world is an illusion, and nothing I know is real, Schopenhauer is like hold on, even if it's an illusion, what does that mean? You know that everything you're experiencing is something you're truly experiencing.

So while someone like Kant tries to seek a priori wisdom, Schopenhauer is like no, let's start with the sensing, experiencing world, and see what universal truth we can intuit from the fact of this world. Anyway, he agrees with Kant more than he disagrees with him (although his critique of Kant at the end of World as Will is incredible), but his main departure is where he tries to make some judgements about the nature of the 'thing-in-itself'. This is an idea that obsesses continental philosophers. Kant basically says, we can only know things as they appear to us, we can't know things as they truly are. For instance, we can measure the force of gravity, but we can't know why this force exists at this level, but not at some other level. On the more existential level, why is there something instead of nothing? Why does matter have such and such a property instead of another? Why are loud things loud? Why are soft things soft? Why aren't they spikey instead? Why are things how they are? We can know the answer in a causal way (they are this way, because something else is this other way, or because our organs percieve in this way). But we can't know why those relationships exist.

Philosophers hate that concept. Ever since Kant they're trying to get at the thing-in-itself. So Schopenhauer, being a very logical person, says, there is one example of the thing-in-itself that we CAN know. And that is...ourselves. When a person does something, there's always a proximate cause (they're trying to achieve this thing or avoid this harm), but you never know the deeper cause (WHY do they want to achieve this thing or avoid this stuff?) Why is Schopenhauer a philosopher and not a cartoonist? Even to Schopenhauer it's a mystery--as he puts it "We can do what we will, but we can't will what we will". Essentially, you can't change your own essential nature. But that nature is, as he puts it, your Will. It's a blind, terrible force of pure wanting, pure impulse. And he develops this into a long theme, but essentially everything is will. Why do planets move? Because they will it. And yes is it because of gravity? Totally--gravity is the exterior form of their movement (the representation or appearance) while Will is the interior form. If the planet was capable of thinking, it would believe that it moved because it wanted to. Similarly, people believe we are doing what we want to because it is our will, but everything we do is also predictable and predetermined. It's a whole complicated thing on free will. But very intuitive and understandable! Highly recommend

Anyway that was my major reading for the year. A bunch of German philosophers. I also read a few books by Husserl, but I won't even attempt to summarize him right now. After him I'll try Nietzsche probably.

In non-Germans, I was less of a prolific reader, and nothing is coming strongly to mind right now, so let me look at my book list.

Okay, I went through four distinct phases.

  1. I tried to read more African-Americans this year, particularly older, classic books. I really liked Ann Petry's The Street and Charles Chesnutt's The Colonel's Dream and The Marrow of Tradition. They're essentially big social novels, in the early 20th century tradition, about African-American people and issues. People call Chesnutt the first African-American novelist, though it's not strictly true. His works failed commercially however, and for the last thirty years of his life he abandoned writing and built a successful court reporting business, I believe. I also got really into slave narratives, of which by far the best (of the ones I read) was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. There aren't that many slave narratives by women, and fewer that deal frankly with the sexual aspects of slavery. I was very moved by the book, and I thought it was written incredibly well, too. It's one of the more famous narratives, and rightfully so. I also liked [Native Son]( It's little read now, and often considered a bit racist. Every white person in the book is nuanced and complex, and every Black person is awful and ignorant. As someone who often writes unflattering portraits of my own people, I respected the amount of feeling Wright must've had--the sheer anger--when he wrote this. It's not his fault white people loved it so much! I think he was really getting at something, in his own way.
  2. I got into a phase where I tried to read a lot of popular novels. I got really into Walter Scott. The best of his books was The Antiquary. I'm pretty sure this book has no plot. It's just about an old guy who likes old stuff. Definitely listen to it in audio, via librivox, like I did. Can't imagine anyone would be patient enough to read it. Reminded me a lot of Bleak House in some ways, with its fiery protagonists and genteel older man. Scott's most famous book is Ivanhoe, which is a complete and total mess, but kind of fun--it features cameos from Robin of Loxley AND King Richard the Lion-Heart. It basically throws everything from 1200 into one big stew and sees what'll stick. There's tournaments, there's heroic Anglo-Saxons trying to defend their land, there's everything! Other charming popular novels were Little Women and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I thought the latter, in partcular, was deeply affecting. Was clearly cribbed wholesale from slave narratives and probably doesn't deserve to be read anymore (why read a white woman's reinterpretation when you could just read the original?) But as a powerful piece of rhetoric, which systematically combines and explicates and argues against every slavery trope (it starts with a kind master, progresses to an indifferent one, and ends with an evil one, to show that all are terrible and that there is no good slavery).
  3. Finally, I had my Soviet phase, which was dominated by Nadezhdha Mandelstam's two magisterial memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Probably two of the best books I've ever read. They describe the spiritual corruption of Stalin's terror, and its effect on the intelligentsia in particular, in such close detail. And they're also full of love for Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and everyone else who managed to retain a shred of courage during the terror. Because Nadezhda Mandelstam managed to avoid the camps, they're also one of the few accounts you'll read of civilian life during the terror. Another good one in that vein was Lydia Chukovskaya's novella [Sofia Petrova](, about a working woman who loses her son to the Terror and, essentially, goes mad. It was written in 1940, when the terror was abated (because of the war), but hardly over. I got really fascinated in what being an official writer in the Soviet Union entailed, so I read Inside the Writer's Union. Great look at how the later Soviet Union co-opted writers with the carrot and not the stick. Being an official writer in the Soviet Union carried immense perks. The writer's union had its own resorts, its own clubs, its own apartment blocks. Writers could become incredibly rich, by Soviet standards.

Of course this only scratches the surface of all the cool books I read this year, and I doubt anyone besides my dad and my wife has even managed to read this far, so I'm just gonna have a final, unranked list of books.

  • Bambi was re-released this year in a beautiful NYRB classics edition. It's very clearly a parable about anti-Semitism. It's about Bambi's fear of Him--the hunter. But it's also a beautiful and emotional coming of age story as Bambi grows to take the place of the Old Stag (who turns out to be his dad).
  • My Experiments With Truth was a book I'd read in my teens, but I re-read it recently. I blogged about it earlier, but I just wanted to note the book was so human, and it made me feel connected to the India of a hundred years ago (Gandhi came from my region of India and is of a similar caste as my family) in a way I never had before.
  • The Great Impersonation probably should be listed under popular novels. Oppenheim was a bestseller in the teens and twenties. Literally all of his books are about how terrible Germany is. This is his most famous, about a german spy who kills a British nobleman and takes his place! It got me super into Oppenheim and I read two more of his books in quick succession.
  • Pull Devil, Pull Baker is one of those books it's impossible to recommend, because it's so strange. A novelist finds a Russian expatriate noblemen, penniless and dying, in a Hong Kong hospital, and she records his stories, along with some reflections on the nature of truth and storytelling. Apparently this guy really existed! I kept believing I was reading some post-modern fictional performance, but apparently not! Re-released this year by Boiler House Press, a great press.
  • Last of the Innocent is the sixth volume in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's critically acclaimed Criminals series. I got this as a Humble Comics bundle ages ago. This year, as part of my plan to collect all my comics in my calibre library, I ran across the series again. For the first few volumes, Criminals seemed like generic noir, but it's not. What sets it apart is how fully it inhabits that veil between regular life and the underworld. When you're in the underworld, everything is up for grabs, and it's rare that you're just an ordinary mentally stable person who commits crimes. I remember very well from my days as an addict, the feeling that anything is possible, and I grew to enjoy these reminisces. Also, the unnamed city where these stories takes place strongly resembles San Francisco. This is the best and most critically acclaimed of the seven volumes.
  • Manhunt is the book I read this year that made me feel the most feelings. An extremely complex exploration of gender and desire, combined with a gendercide fantasy about trans-woman in a post-male future who hunt down and kill TERFs.
  • The Recognitions is difficult, but not as difficult as its reputed to be. I thought it was a cynical and angry, but very human book, about what it means to be authentic in a world where so many people seem spiritually adrift. Pair it with Fire the bastards! which is an almost-deranged pamphlet that systematically dismantles the initial critical reaction the Recognitions got upon release. The writer of this pamphlet's viewpoint is, essentially, if critics can't recognize a bona fide masterpiece, then what are they good for?
  • The Byzantine Economy is definitely not of interest to anyone but me, but I kept wondering how Byzantium could continue to be Europe's richest state for so long. The usual answer is 'trade', but that's not really true. It wasn't a huge trading or naval power--much of its external trade was carried on by Italian city-states (which led to its downfall). The real truth lay in its administrative state. Almost alone of the nations of Europe, Byzantium had the power to directly collect taxes (i.e. there was a land tax, so every farmer or landlord paid the government directly, in coin). A highly monetized economy and relatively high literacy allowed it to, almost alone in the region, maintain a strong central state. I got really big into economic history this year and read a lot about some very abstruse issues, like monetization and the metal value of the currency. Also read a lot about medieval economic theory, which was fascinating, particularly the concept of a "just price" and a "just profit". It wasn't enforced, but merchants were theoretically only supposed to make such-and-such profit and no more. I also looked into the history of poor relief and welfare, which for most of the middle ages (esp. in England) was considered rather unobjectionable and was handled locally, since the assumption was that the only people who'd need it would be those who were sick, disabled, or old.
  • From Poor Law To Welfare State was the best book I could find about the development of the U.S.'s poor relief system. It's actually stunning how much of our welfare state was stealthily dismantled during the Clinton era. We really don't realize how much more there used to be, and how slowly that system arose.
  • Razorblade Tears is about a black ex-con and a white ex-con who team up to avenge the murder of the gay sons they were estranged from. Probably the most purely fun book I read this year, and perhaps ever. Highly recommend.


  • Gorbachev died this year. He was a really cool and honorable guy (by William Taubman)
  • New Teeth is Simon Rich doing his thing, writing funny short stories about whatever he happens to be doing in his life this year (in this case it's parenting)
  • Map: New and Selected is so wry, funny, and thoughtful. Grew to love Wislawa Szymborska's poetry. I always expect Nobel Laureates to be really heavy and serious (see: Tomas Transtormer), but she's so human!
  • Paths of Glory is basically The Caine Mutiny. Combo of a thorny ethical situation, military fog of war, and a courtroom scene. To cover their own incompetence these French generals order a random soldier in each corps executed for cowardice. Based on real life events! (by Humphrey Cobb)

This is only a fraction of what I read this year, and there are major authors I haven't included. Like I read City of God, by Saint Augustine. I read Little Women, Empire of Pain, Consent (by Vanessa Springora), Passing by Nella Larsen. I read The Bluest Eye! It was so good! But what am I gonna say in a blog post about The Bluest Eye? So I guess I'll have to leave it. Next year I'm really gonna try to write about more books during the year so I'm not left at the end with SO MANY it's impossible for me to talk about them all.

To show you out, here's a picture of Ol Blue Eyes himself: Hegel


Spent an hour yesterday trying to understand when the yeoman class disappeared in England

Hello friends, just came back from a trip to Los Angeles. Like all trips with toddlers it was very tiring. I have no idea what I am supposed to do today, but I haven't done it. On the other hand, I spent an hour yesterday trying to research when exactly the yeoman class in England disappeared.

This is because I'm nearing the end of the first volume of Marx's Capital, where he gets into the idea of where the original capital came from. How did the first manufacturers get their capital? And to this end he traces the history of wealth in England.

Now if you know England, you know they're big into the concept of their yeomanry, which was their historical proto-middle-class. These were essentially small landholders who worked their own land. They were the backbone of the English army and of its identity and of its proto-democratic values.

But Marx was like, when the great landlords started enclosing the commons and kicking tenants off their estates so they could turn farm land into pasture land, that is when the yeomanry disappeared. And my question was, "How is that possible? If the yeomanry owned their own land, how could anyone kick them off of it?"

To this end, I did a lot of research, and in the process I found that there's not an exact definition of what a yeoman is. What many people point to is the "forty shilling freeholder", which is the person who was entitled to vote for representatives for the House of Commons. This requirement, enacted in 1440ish, limited the franchise to people who derived at least forty shillings a year of income from, essentially, rents. Although rents was widely defined. If you owned and worked land that would be worth forty shillings if rented out, that still counted, but you had to actually own the land. It had to belong to you by right, indefinitely--you couldn't simply have a lease on it.

This is where the problem comes in. Many of the people commonly referred to as yeomen were not actually freeholders (i.e. they didn't own their land outright, w/ no lord other than the king). Many were copyholders. These were people who farmed large plots of land on very long leases and who did not owe anything other than a cash rent on the land (i.e. they didn't owe payment in service or in shares to their landlord). These people would not have been eligible to vote.

In practice, people often didn't want to be eligible to vote, because people who met the property requirements for voting also met the requirements to serve on juries, which was a hassle.

The term "farmer" by the way, originally referred exclusively to people who rented land from a landlord in return for an annual payments. So a farmer could not be a forty shilling freeholder. But farmers were often very influential men in their communities. They employed labor, kept large houses, improved their properties, and exercised some influence over local affairs.

(This by the way is all separate from serfdom, which had largely died out by the 15th century, as most land w service obligations was converted to land where you only needed to pay a cash rent to the lord. However at roughly the same time, the poor laws were enacted, which made it VERY difficult to change the district where you resided, because your home district was responsible for taking care of you if you became poor, so in practice people were still unfree in that they couldn't move from place to place in search of better wages and opportunities).

Anyway, to get back to enclosure, this process was disastrous for any form of leaseholder (except, sometimes, the largest farmers), because it entailed reducing an estate's labor needs. You simply didn't need tenants anymore, so you kicked them out (tenancy protections weren't that strong in many parts of England). By walling off the commons, you also hurt small yeomen, because by this point in history a forty shilling freehold was relatively small (four acres or so would meet the requirement) and to make ends meet many freeholders also pastured animals in the commons. So walling off the commons made it difficult for them to make ends meets and resulted in them selling their land, which led to land consolidation.

But I also read an article saying the major decline in the yeoman class came in the years after the black death, when rural populations declined permanently, and that decline after 1750 wasn't significant. But the article was also from 1910, so who knows.

Which is to say, colloquially, the term 'yeoman' referred to relatively well-off peasants (say, those who farmed more than thirty acres). Or what in Soviet Russia would've been called a kulak. But this class was divided into richer yeoman and poorer ones. The poorer ones were the ones Marx talked about who were destroyed by enclosure. The richer ones actually made lots of money and became, in Marx's opinion, the foundation of the bourgeoisie.

Marx doesn't care about the distinction between copyholders and freeholders, because he doesn't see voting as a meaningful right, but many people colloquially called yeomen were actually copyholders, who simply leased lands on very long rents. These people actually had the potential to make a lot of money during the enclosure period bc their rents were fixed, there was general inflation, and the price of rural labor dropped. Thus, their obligations and costs decreased, while the price of their produce increased.

I'm just writing this blog post because I spent hours searching for this information last night and found it all over the place in bits and pieces. You know, for an economist that was at one point the basis for the economic system that governed half the world, Marx is kind of underexplained, at least in English. But I am sure someone else will try to google "Marx yeoman disappeared Capital" and will come across this entry and get some clarity.

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My writing to reading ratio is about 1 to 4, I think

My sister in law recently asked what percentage of my time I spend writing and what percentage I spend reading. I said that if she was asking for the ratio of those two activities then I spend at least three hours reading for every hour I spend writing. 

And yet I constantly wonder if this is enough. For instance today most of my reading has consisted of listening to this audiobook about Jack Welch (I began and finished it today in four-ish hours of listening) and an audiobook on Lenin. Meanwhile I’m still making my way slowly through Capital. And yet I’m taking time off to write this post. 

Writing is the ultimate aim. One wants to produce something that will last. And it’s sometimes pleasant to write, nice to think one has produced something today. But productivity can also lead you astray. Finished a story or essay or blog post or chapter can be a form of instant gratification, and I wonder—is this really necessary? Perhaps I could improve my work more by reading Capital. After all, most of what I write gets thrown out, but what I read never goes away. 

And yet I do think, I dunno, that when I die, or when my memory fades, that all this learning will go away. The Soviets for some reason always hated aestheticism in any form, they wanted all knowledge to be in service of the state. And I wonder what’s the point of reading just to know—isn’t it more important to transmute my reading into something more?

But I’ve lately taken a longer view. After all, according to life expectancy tables I can expect to live at least a few more years: twenty or thirty wouldn’t be unreasonable. That means my entire productive life to come will easily equal or exceed what has passed. And I don’t want to read 55 or 65 and think, I haven’t learned anything since I was 36. 

In this Jack Welch book they keep talking about how too much pressure, too much interrogation, squelches creativity. To be creative you need the freedom to fail. Jack Welch created an environment where performance was constantly measured and nobody had any room to just play around.

I have seen too many writers though spend too many years in play, writing outlines or doodling or doing research, like a Mr Causabon and never getting down to work. 

I’m not sure. I used to think I’d write my great book someday. But if I haven’t written it yet, then I’m at least aware that anything I write at this age needs to have at least some potential to be the great one. 

Notes on books:

I realized what’s been bothering me about Capital: it’s the labor theory of value. It states that all the value in a good is produced by labor. As such, profit can only arise from exploiting labor. I’ve been thinking very hard about it, and I realized the problem is Marx has some assumptions he doesn’t make explicit. The main one is he believes in a Malthusian world where wages will inevitably fall to the level of subsistence. The worker will get only as much of the value as it takes to keep them alive and reproduce their labor. He believes it’s the capitalist’s goal to create such a world, in fact. But…that isn’t really what happened. Wages in industrial societies for whatever reason rose instead. This undermines his whole point. Marx argues that the _purpose_ of capital is to give workers less power, to make them more expendable, and thus allow you to reduce their wages. Under capitalism, the workers will thus get to keep a smaller share of their labor than before capitalism. But it’s not entirely clear if that’s true, and there are empirical reasons for thinking it’s not. He makes a very well argued case though. 

Periodically I search the Penguin Classics catalogue for interesting books. I sometimes buy them but almost never read them (I’m horrible, I know). But the other day I came upon Path of Glory by Humphrey Cobb. It’s a 1935 novel about WWI that inspired a Stanley Kubrick movie that’s apparently much better known. Anyway it was reissued as a Penguin Classic, and it’s short so I took a look. It’s set on the Western Front, in a French regiment that fails in an assault. Afterwards, the ordinary soldiers are scapegoated by their vindictive general (who likes to boast he’s never once failed to take a position he’s assaulted), and three of the enlisted men are court martialed and executed as an example to the rest. It reminded me strongly of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which also used a war setting (WWII, in that case) to dramatize an ethical dilemma and whose second half was a courtroom drama. Oh, Crimson Tide also uses a similar conceit and structure. In both of those cases, the soldier eventually gets off, though there’s doubt about whether they should. This one is bleaker, as befits a WWI novel, and it castigates the entire machinery of war for giving people the ability to duck responsibility for what they’ve done. It was also quite well-written, albeit in an unshowy manner. The lines had natural elegance and rhythm. I finished it in one sitting—two hours. 

Articles of Note

  • Found lots to love in this article about one of the latest Fields medal winners (it's like the Nobel for math, as anyone who's watched Good Will Hunting will remember): "To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)

Since this is basically a newsletter now, I'm putting a submission link below

Have been reading a ton of French Graphic novels lately

Hello friends! I continue to feel not-awful. My baby is the cutest baby, and life is great. My career is a nightmare, but over the last seven years I've grown to expect that. You know, so long as the writing is going okay, there's no bad news that can affect me.

I've started working on a fantasy novel. This is something I've said on this blog numerous times. Almost always I abandon the fantasy novel. I'm sure this will be no different. The problem I always face with fantasy novels is that I don't enjoy writing scenes where people hit each other with swords. And, moreover, I don't enjoy writing protagonists whose main strength is that they're great at hitting people with swords and/or shooting magic balls at people. It just doesn't interest me, no matter how much the rest of the story does.

This time I've found a way of writing action scenes that I think is a little more robust and, to me, interesting, but we'll see.

My reading has been so scattered lately. I'm still reading lots of intellectual magazines, been liking the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. I like when they summarize a book for me, so I don't have to read it. Like there was a big article about Machiavelli's life, and now I don't have to read the eight hundred page biography that was the subject of the article!

I've been making my slow way through George Stewart's Names on the Land, which is an account of how places in America got their names. It sounds like the most boring book on the Earth, but it's not. You learn a lot! For instance, when the Spanish were exploring the Americas, there was a legend about an Amazonian kingdom in America that was ruled by women. There was also a romance, popular in Spain, about a queen named Caleyfia. An explorer reported to Hernan Cortes that he'd found a huge island to the West, and Cortes, disbelieving, said that must be the island of Caleyfornia (the joke being that it was imaginary, like the historical romance and like the Amazonian kingdom). And that's where California comes from!

Most of the stories aren't that great, but it's still interesting to discover why so many things are named after some people and not others. But the book can also be pretty dry. Let's see..I'm also reading Nicole Cushing's A Sick Gray Laugh. I got the book on sale. I've been Twitter acquaintances with Nicole Cushing for years and have run into her in various online places where writer's congregate. I had no idea she was such an incredible writer! This is a book that's too bizarre to describe adequately. Also pretty dense, and I'm getting through it slowly.

Have been reading lots of comics on DC Universe, DC Comics's subscription service. I don't read the standard superhero comic stuff, but there's a lot of bizarre and offbeat stuff in the DC universe. I'm attracted primarily to looser art styles, and I've started to look for artists instead of writers. Lately I've been reading Gotham City Garage, about a future where blah blah blah, the girls of the DC Universe blah blah blah rock out. I've also been reading Heroes in Crisis, which is uneven when it comes to storytelling and writing, but is still pretty fun intermittently: it's about a safehouse for superheroes undergoing mental breakdowns. I've also been reading Seven Soldiers, which...I'm not exactly sure what it is. It's a series of interlocking stories about some very bizarre sidecharacters in the DC Universe.

Outside the superhero world, my favorite comics imprint continues to be Europe comics! And my favorite writer / artist pair is Bruno and Fabien Nury. I first read their Tyler Cross series, which is a hardboiled series about a gangster who doesn't talk much, has a huge jaw, and usually has no mouth. I just love the art style, honestly. Nury also wrote Death of Stalin, which I've never read, but which got turned into a great movie, and Bruno and Nury also collaborated on The Man Who Shot Chris Kyle, which is a graphic novel about the life and death of Chris Kyle, whose exploits were dramatized in the Bradley Cooper movie American Sniper. I highly recommend the graphic novel, which is a bit difficult to describe. It's anti-war and anti-macho (after all, it was originally a French language comic). But there's something in its dry, dusty setting and it's spiraling tone that's really captivating. Finally, I read Shelley, another set of French graphic novels about the life of Percy Shelley. The first, detailing his seduction, abandonment, and the subsequent suicide of his first wife, is very interesting. Shelley remains a captivating character despite his louche behavior. The second, of course, focuses on the weekend at Via Diodati, but it ends in a rather bizarre manner. I approve of and am impressed by the ending, but I doubt I'd have made the same decision, and I'm not entirely sure it was the best one.