All posts filed under: Books

Return to ‘The Unheavenly City’

The late senator, statesman, sociologist, and New Yorker Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan balanced one truth with another, in part to show that neither side enjoyed a monopoly on wisdom. Had he offered these competing visions of politics and culture without describing one as “conservative” and the other as “liberal,” however, it would have admitted the possibility that one was more accurate than the other. And whether or not that is in fact the case matters—not merely for philosophical reasons but for political and social reasons, too. In 1970, American political scientist Edward Banfield had explored this apparently innocuous question in a monograph entitled The Unheavenly City: The Nature and the Future of Our Urban Crisis. The book proved to be so divisive that a slightly revised version appeared just four years later entitled The Unheavenly City Revisited (the …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …

Decadence and Depravity in Louisville, Kentucky

Fifty years ago today, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman drunkenly negotiated the pitfalls of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby. At the time, Thompson was a moderately successful writer who had published an acclaimed book a few years earlier about his time among the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Steadman was a talented young artist from Wales who had traveled to the United States in search of work. For Steadman and Thompson, it would be their first meeting, but it was hardly Thompson’s first derby. He had grown up in Louisville’s Cherokee Park area and was familiar with the whisky gentry who would be in attendance. As a teenager, Thompson’s wit, charm, intellect, and surly insubordination had made him popular among the city’s wealthy young men and women. However, he had never felt fully accepted and, when he was arrested along with a couple of classmates for holding up a car just shy of his graduation, his rich friends abandoned him to his fate—two months in prison. After 10 years of surviving …

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization—A Review

A review of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg, Gateway Editions (June 2019) 256 pages. The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success of the modern West need to explain why the scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else. On the other hand, those who argue that Christianity is critical or integral to the success of the modern West need to explain why these developments did not occur until 12 centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity. One interpretation which has gained currency is the “Athens and Jerusalem” argument, according to which, Western civilisation is based in a unique combination of Greek reason and Judeo-Christian faith. This argument was recently rehearsed, for example, by Ben Shapiro in …

The War of Return—A Review

A review of The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, All Points Books (April 2020) 304 pages  In a story that may be apocryphal, the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that he had once seen legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban comment that the most striking aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict is how easily it can be solved: It is simply a matter of dividing the land of Israel into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The only thing standing in the way of this solution is the intense religious or nationalist attachment of both sides to the idea of an undivided nation between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, this assumption that partition alone can bring peace has been the foundation of all of the international community’s peace efforts since the 1967 Six Day War. The only difficulty, it is believed, is persuading the two sides to agree to it. Not so, argue former Israeli Knesset Member Einat Wilf and journalist Adi Schwartz in their new book The War of Return. …

The Purpose of Imaginative Fiction

When I learned that the 2020 International Booker Prize was going ahead in spite of London’s lockdown, I rejoiced at the organisers’ resourcefulness and resilience. But then I began reading the posts about this year’s prize on the Booker website and my enthusiasm dwindled. Surveying press responses to publication of the shortlist, the organisers spotlighted the Guardian‘s observation that nominee Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is only 28 years old, “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them.” The New York Times, we are told, had noted that four of the six shortlisted nominees are women, and the Sydney Morning Herald had informed its readers that one of these women is a refugee who fled to Australia from Iran. A separate post made mention of “such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss.” I find it unfortunate that the literary industry, eager to advertise its diversity credentials, panders to the media’s obsession with secondary considerations such as choice of subject matter and author identity, rather than focusing on essential considerations such as talent …

Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America—A Review

A review of Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America by Steven Bingen, Lyons Press (November 2019) 200 pages. It was the 1990 comedy Flashback that sparked my interest in Easy Rider (1969) when I was eight or nine years old. In the former, Dennis Hopper plays an aging 60s dissident, busted after 20 years on the lam, who gets taken cross-country by a no-nonsense FBI agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Naturally, the straight-laced fed can’t keep his laces very straight after Hopper doses him (or pretends to dose him) with LSD, releasing the young Republican’s inner hippie. At one point, Hopper declares, “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.” For some odd reason lost on me now, I liked this airy nothing of a movie and so, of course, insisted that my family rent Easy Rider the next time we visited our local video store. Strangely, I liked that too, though, again, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was the music—all …

Woody Allen’s ‘Apropos of Nothing’—A Review

A Review of Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen, Arcade Publishing (March 2020) 400 pages Rolling Stone has pronounced Woody Allen’s new memoir, Apropos of Nothing, “horrendously ugly.” The writer, David Fear, is not enraged that the book, originally scheduled for publication by Hachette, was cancelled and pulped after employees staged a walkout. Nor is he relieved that it was rescued by a smaller house, Arcade, and published this month. Instead he suggests that the book be thrown into the furnace, that Allen is guilty of being an “elderly man” and that he has “a whole lot of creepy comments about the younger women he’s cast.” The Washington Post suggests that the book be used as toilet paper, that it is “terrible” and “preposterous” and “a giant piece of belly button lint.” The New York Times says that Allen is “incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women… Every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks.” The most inchoate review came from a young woman at the Forward who …

Lessons in Death and Life from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys

One of the passions of my reading life—which might seem strange for a youngish man—has been devouring and re-devouring the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, which, when stacked on top of one another, rise above my knee. If you are late to the Pepys game, it suffices to say that our man, who was born in early 1633 and went on to be England’s chief administrator of the navy and a member of parliament, was king of the diarists. Day in, day out, he kept a record of his life from January 1st, 1660, and continued to do so for about 10 years. He likely wrote for posterity, but he also seemed to write with a maxim in mind: If it was true, he would say it. And so, we have him complaining with regularity about his wife, the cat he contemplates drowning, and his weakness—for Pepys was a born peeper—for young, comely actresses. Strange as my passion for Pepys may be in the age of the meme and an apparent war on literate expression, …

Farewell, My Lovely

A review of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, Flatiron Books (February 2020) 397 pages. Editor’s note: the following essay contains spoilers. There’s a moment midway through the film Chinatown (1974) in which the hero, Jake Gittes, hands us a clue—not a clue about the case he’s investigating, the one involving graft and murder in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, but a more subtextual kind of clue, hinting at the meaning of the film’s enigmatic title. Jake (Jack Nicholson) and his client, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), are standing in her back yard, and she’s prodding him about his life before he became a private eye, when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. What did he do there, she asks? “As little as possible,” Jake replies. This bit of dialogue may seem innocuous, but it was, in fact, the inspiration for the entire film, taken by screenwriter Robert Towne from an actual Chinatown cop, whom he met in the early 1970s. In Chinatown, the policeman explained, you …