Some Recent Goodreads Reviews

The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar by Luke Timothy Johnson

James Klagge's review

Jun 16, 2022  ·

While I consider myself well-read in theology, I had never read anything by the author. I had heard of him, but not read anything. I was attracted by the subtitle--since I consider myself a scholar as well.
The first thing to say is that I am not as much of a scholar as the author--maybe 10% as much! He offers a litany of his publications (p. 5)--35 books, 75+ articles, 100+ popular articles, 200+ book reviews... I'm a far cry from that...and I consider myself fairly productive--4 books, 4 edited books, 27 articles... I'm not sure how you do that much! But we are on the same path anyway.
The second thing to say is that the author's personal life remained something of a mystery. It is true that he did not propose to write a spiritual memoir. But his spiritual life--he began as a monk and then soon accepted excommunication to marry, a woman 9 years older than him with 6 children and significant health challenges--had a great impact on his scholarly life, yet we never learn much about that (pp. 82-5). There was a slight parallel between our paths early on. Once while I was working on my PhD I considered focussing on doing community development work in a Christian community before going into academia. But the advice of a professor and a budding romance turned me away from that route. Perhaps it remained a mystery to him as well. But he is so articulate about so many things that it is hard to imagine he couldn't have articulated more about this. Anyway...
I thought the author did a good job of characterizing the life of a scholar--not only the process of research, but the other activities such as teaching, administration, public service, family...that make such a life a challenge. What he did not do as well, at least through most of the book, was to characterize his own scholarly contributions. He certainly listed them. But not as much of what they amounted to in general terms accessible to most readers, such as myself. (He did this more near the end.) The one area that I had some familiarity with was the work of the Jesus Seminar--assessing the historicity of Jesus (e.g., The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus). I have long been a fan of this work, and it was frustrating to hear that he roundly criticized it, without him offering a clear account of why (pp. 146-49). He questioned their method, but I was unclear how he disagreed with their conclusions--especially since he distances himself from fundamentalists. I gather that he thinks historicity is the wrong lens to bring to the issue, but I wish he had done more to explain his preferred lens. In general, when it came to his research contributions, he never presented them in a way that made me think I would read this or that by him. In the end I felt sympathetic to the views and approaches he set out, but I was never pulled in. And so that was a little disappointing.
The author's scholarly career spanned about 1970 to the present (mine about 1975 to the present), so it was interesting to recall the evolution of scholarship in those decades. E.g., the advent of personal computers for faculty in the late 1980's, the move from letters to faxes to e-mail, by the mid-1990's, the development of digital resources beginning around 2000, etc. When I was corresponding with G.H. von Wright about Wittgenstein stuff for our book Philosophical Occasions: 1912-1951 we used faxes, which were faster than letters! When I published a survey of Wittgenstein's use of the concept "besteht darin [consisting in]" in 1995, it was completely based on my actual reading of all the sources. There was no digital search I could do. (And I don't think I missed any!)
When the author recounts his childhood and the relevant influences, he recounts an intellectual family life. In my case it was not until I was in high school that I found the debate team and friends who valued intellectual activities--not that my family discouraged that, but never modeled it.
One interesting topic the author considered was productivity and perfectionism (pp. 130, 221). On the one hand he talks about the odd valuing on non-productivity in elite departments--as though there is something beneath dignity to actually publish things. I have heard about this but not experienced it. And then he also discusses perfectionism, where a scholar can't let go of a piece. This was how Wittgenstein behaved, and to a lesser extent was present at UCLA when I was a grad student there (1976-1983). Maybe Rogers Albritton is the best example of that, but also exhibited by David Kaplan to a lesser extent. Kaplan never published his monograph on Demonstratives (on which he gave courses in the late 1970s) and only allowed it to be published in a collection about his work Themes from Kaplan published in 1989. The ethos at UCLA was certainly to publish only very carefully.
The author had an incredible commitment to teaching. This is all to the good, and something that I share in my own work. But he took it far beyond anything I would expect. When he has TAs--in his case for courses around 100 students--he not only oversees their work, but he himself does all the actual grading. This would be completely unworkable in my case, with courses numbering 150+ students. But it seems to me that TAs should be trusted to do their grading, with proper oversight. I'm not sure why he went that far.
I most enjoyed the book's chapters near the end on the intellectual and moral virtues of a scholar. These were interesting and to me insightful and plausible. He discusses the importance of not allowing ideological perspectives to overwhelm the issues under discussion. It is clear that this has had greater impact on New Testament studies than it has on Wittgenstein studies. I hope that remains true.
He also discusses the long time it sometimes takes to research, process and write up scholarly results. This was true of a number of the author's projects. This was another respect in which my own work can be compared to the author's. My longest-term project Tractatus in Context: The Essential Background for Appreciating Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus took 45 years. Another Wittgenstein's Artillery: Philosophy as Poetry took 10 years. And my views about Wittgenstein's views on the relation of mind and brain have evolved over 30 years, starting with a paper in 1989, another in 1996, this book Wittgenstein in Exile in 2011, and a book review in 2018.
Another virtue the author promotes is Imagination. I especially appreciate this one. Ray Monk's famous biography of Wittgenstein Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is subtitled "The Duty of Genius." Monk uses "genius" as a perspective to view Wittgenstein's life. In one of my books I use "exile" as a perspective to view his life. This is not a fact that one discovers or proves, but an imaginative way of thinking about Wittgenstein. The "proof" is only in how much illumination it brings. Perhaps this seems to go beyond the work of the scholar, narrowly construed. But it is a contribution to our appreciation. That is what I have aimed for.
Another virtue the author promotes is breadth, which I also second. He mentions the value of reading literature broadly--not (just) for its content, but for its vision. I have especially brought this to bear in my recent book Wittgenstein's Artillery: Philosophy as Poetry. In one chapter I draw on a wide range of examples from literature to illustrate other ways of doing some of the kinds of things Wittgenstein tries to do in his vignettes and aphorisms. To appreciate Wittgenstein we have to try to bring as broad a perspective as he himself brought to his own work.
All in all, this book gave me a lot to think about, and I appreciated the author's candor. I guess I wished for even more--but that may be too much to ask.

The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin J B Lipscomb 

James Klagge's review

Jan 09, 2022 

This is a fine book. It provides a sort of narrative that ties these 4 lives to the evolution of meta-ethics over about 3 decades. It is written in an accessible fashion, and draws on interviews and archival research done by the author in interesting ways. I plan to use it as a background text in my upcoming seminar on Aristotle's Ethics and Contemporary Virtue Theory.
It also provided an opportunity for me to think back over memories from my philosophical life. I was a grad student at UCLA 1976-1983 and took or went to several seminars by Foot. My dissertation was on Moral Realism, chaired by Warren Quinn, though Foot was not involved. My early publications were on supervenience, and I got helpful comments/criticisms from Hare. I only met Anscombe once, but had to deal with her when publishing a collection of Wittgenstein's work--Philosophical Occasions: 1912-1951. I needed her permission but couldn't get her to respond to me. I finally called her on the phone and got her to agree, and she then sent me a scrawled note of permission. My introduction to Murdoch was actually through John McDowell, who visited UCLA in 1977--I took his seminar on Greek Moral Psychology (a preview of his paper "Virtue and Reason") and he included readings from Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good. (Foot did not attend the course.) I was interested to see the comment from Foot that the department at UCLA was "the right sort" (p. 235). She certainly was close to Rogers Albritton and Quinn (both of whom were on my dissertation committee). But she was friendly with lots of folks in the department.
The only figure I had no connection to was Mary Midgley, though I was glad to learn about her work connecting human with animal nature, and tying that in with ethics. It reminded me a lot of the work of Marjorie Grene, whom I did know pretty well, though Marjorie did not tie her work to ethics. But she was also a woman of that era (1909-2008) who spent a good chunk of her time raising a family and getting relatively little recognition...well, apart from The Philosophy of Marjorie Grene.

Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre,

James Klagge's review 

Oct 26, 2021 

First of all I'll admit I didn't read every page. Has anyone?
I'm an analytic philosopher, but about 30 years ago I decided I wanted to broaden my classes a bit. I decided to teach a senior/MA level course in Metaphysics using The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, this book, and The View from Nowhere or Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. This gives a survey of 3 significant works in the 20th century. It also modeled for my students the experience of working with a text that is not easy or familiar. I have now taught that class that way 10 times, and I think it works.
The reader can easily get lost in Sartre's prose and lingo. And long passages are (for me) impenetrable. (I would give it 1 star on this basis.) But there are so many nuggets along the way and deeply interesting ideas that it is worth the effort to find them. (With some guidance! I don't make my students read the whole thing, but extensive selections that I mark.) (I would give it 5 stars on this basis--so the 1 and 5 average out to my 3-star rating.)
Among the nuggets that I enjoy (though I can't hope to explain them here):
-The distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself.
-His discussion of Pierre NOT being in the cafe (p. 40ff). This makes for an interesting contrast with Russell's view of negative facts. The most charming thing about Sartre is his vignettes, such as this. They have real depth to them, and offer a way of doing philosophy that largely contrasts with the analytic tradition. (However, I try to bring this approach on stage, with Wittgenstein's assistance, in my Wittgenstein's Artillery: Philosophy as Poetry.
-His distinction between fear and anguish (p. 60).
-His radical conception of freedom (throughout the book), in which the for-itself has the inalienable capacity to nihilate influences of any sort.
-His notion of bad faith (p. 83), in which people are constantly tempted to fool themselves into thinking they are not constantly free. Think how often we say "I can't do that tonight, I have to..." instead of "I choose not to do that tonight, I choose to..."
-Authenticity (p. 128) becomes perhaps the only real virtue for him, and what makes us truly human; yet we are constantly tempted to bad faith. He defines God as the being-in-itself-for-itself, and sees the human project as the desire to be god (p. 140). He is an atheist b/c such a synthesis is not possible, and he sees the human project as fundamentally impossible. We are inevitably in an "unhappy state."
-The appeal to reasons and values in decision-making is a manifestation of bad faith (p. 143). Things are reasons or values for us only insofar as we choose them. If we think we are weighing factors in a decision, it is only we who weighted the factors to start with.
-He solves the problem of other minds by reminding us of the experience of shame in the presence of another--the Look. His account of being caught in the act, peeking through a keyhole, is another great vignette (p. 347).
-He does not think 2 for-itselfs can encounter one another and both remain for-itselfs. One or the other becomes an in-itself. He illustrates this with the marvelous account of walking through the park (p. 341). My account of this: If you can imagine a polar coordinate system overlaid in the park, with me at the center, the discovery of another in the park creates a metaphysical battle over who will be the center of the coordinate system.
-Love, or rather, sex, then becomes a battleground of a similar sort (p. 475), in which the for-itself dominates another--sadism, or is dominated by the other--masochism. Late in life Sartre's long-time partner, Simone de Beauvoir, interviewed him about a wide range of things in Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Amazingly, his answers about his own sex life fit perfectly with his metaphysical views between the sheets.
-I love his discussion of hiking and giving up (p. 584). It is a perfect analogy to running a marathon, of which I have lots of experience. He says it is wrong and bad faith to think you "have" to stop, though he admits that to do otherwise might require a fundamental modification of "my original choice of myself." My own experience of long-distance running is that I never ask myself whether I should stop--for fear of what the answer will be. So, by Sartre's lights, my strategy is to run in bad faith. Once I decide to run, I let that earlier decision ride and govern my actions, and I never raise it again. Always reaffirming your choices could end up being somewhat tiring itself, in addition to being dangerous.
-You might think that many of your choices are guided by your character. In fact Aristotle recommended inculcating the virtues precisely so you would have a character that led to the best choices. But Sartre would say that is relying on bad faith. For Sartre, character is a vow, or a project (p. 705).
-Sartre says man is condemned to be free (p. 707), and he is responsible for everything that happens to him! He chose it, for lack of having gotten out of it--by suicide if not by some other means (p. 710). He even goes so far as to say that "in a certain sense I choose to be born"--for not having committed suicide.
-Sartre has an extended critique of Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud treats the person as a collection of forces--i.e., as an in-itself. Sartre endorses what he calls existential psychoanalysis (p. 726). The goal of that is to help a person to discern their original choice of themselves, with the idea that they can see how that plays out and how a different choice could be made.
Let no one suppose I like the book b/c I agree with it. In fact I disagree with a lot, though there are many grains of truth. But its value, as philosophy, is its provocation. And also its determination that philosophy impacts life. Too often analytic philosophy is quite separate from (the rest of) life. But I'm interested in the connections. That has motivated my work on Wittgenstein--to see how his life and his work connect. And that makes Sartre's work especially interesting to me. I don't want to allow that only "continental" philosophy connects with life, but it does at least have that value.

Wittgenstein's Artillery: Philosophy as Poetry, by James C. Klagge 

James Klagge's review

Aug 17, 2021 

Please note I am the author of this book. I read it as soon as I got a hold of a copy, looking for any typos or formatting problems. I can report that I didn’t find any worth mentioning! You should take my 5-star rating with a grain of salt, but I love the book. You should, of course, decide for yourself.
But I did want to make some comments pertaining to format and style. You will notice that the book has endnotes rather than footnotes. That was intentional. I find footnotes to be distracting. If you are a relative beginner with Wittgenstein, you should ignore the endnotes. There are a lot of them and they will distract you from the main narrative. (In fact, there are 67 pages of endnotes for 160 pages of text!) They contain things like additional support for my claims, or related stories that branch off the main narrative but are not essential to it. I love the endnotes, but they are for more experienced readers of Wittgenstein. If you want, after you have read a chapter, you might scan the endnotes to see if there is anything you want to follow up. Joachim Schulte, a reviewer of my previous book, Wittgenstein in Exile, wrote this in a review: “Quite generally, readers of this book will be well-advised to look at these endnotes. Far from being mere collections of references to the literature, they contain many instructive asides and examinations of helpful source material.” But he was writing that review for other scholars.
As you get in a couple chapters you may notice some repetition of quotations. There are several that come up in various places. This again was intentional. Instead of simply referring back to a previous quotation, I want to show how it again becomes relevant in a different context. Wittgenstein compared his philosophical work to that of a tour guide, who shows you around town, coming back to various landmarks from different directions. The same is true of my use of passages like the four introductory sentences to Wittgenstein’s remarks on Frazer, the opening sentences of the “Philosophy” chapter from the Big Typescript, Anscombe’s anecdote about Wittgenstein finding the right medicine for her confusion, and Wittgenstein’s love for Plato’s myths. These landmark passages help tie together other discussions.
One of the experts quoted on the back cover, Marjorie Perloff, calls my book “highly personal.” This feels true to me. It is not only a book about Wittgenstein’s views, but I look at where he fell short, and I try to do some of the things that Wittgenstein felt he didn’t do very well. In this sense, I have engaged with Wittgenstein’s project, and that has been a highly personal journey.
Another expert quoted on the back cover, John Gibson, concluded his assessment of my book with: “It also happens to be a ton of fun to read.” (Unfortunately, while that sentence is included on the book’s page on the MIT Press website and the Amazon webpage, it is NOT included on the back cover!) To me, that is the highest praise. I want to write in a way that is engaging (even while being scholarly), and it is gratifying if that is true.

Financing the Green New Deal: A Plan of Action and Renewal, by Robert C. Hockett

James Klagge's review

Dec 26, 2020 

I hope this gets into the hands of those activists and politicians who can put it to use. It explains how an essential large-scale project--the Green New Deal--can be realistically structured and financed. It emphasizes that the project is comparable in scope to the original New Deal and to the US mobilization for WWII, and is just as doable.
The most interesting discussion is about how monetary policy can be used to finance this project and how it can be done responsibly and relatively quickly. This monetary approach is important because the political grid-lock and divisions in this country make it seem highly unlikely that a fiscal and legislative approach could work, or could work soon enough. The problem with the approach is the same as its advantage--it basically does an end-run around the democratic processes that traditionally support such large-scale projects. It seems unlikely that there would be the political will to sustain this monetary approach if there is not the political will to motivate it fiscally and legislatively. I strongly sympathize with the author's concern that we need to do something, and soon. And if the question really is--how will we pay for it?--this gives a fully plausible answer. Unfortunately I believe that question is just a cover for the real question--why should I make sacrifices now for a future that I can't palpably experience now? If we could answer that question, we wouldn't have to do an end-run around the fiscal legislative approach. But since political terms and investment horizons do not extend beyond a few years, it will be tough to turn things around until it is too late.
Although it is not part of the title, this book also explains how the Green New Deal can be done in such a way as to benefit people from all walks of life and especially those in rural communities and who most need economic assistance but are least likely to be attracted to Green issues. It becomes a justice issue not just for future generations but for those left behind in this generation.
This book was commissioned by AOC's office as a blue print for how to proceed. But I hope that origin does not keep it from being read by a wider range of leaders. The work by the author that went into this book is astounding. It is extensively footnoted, but all the footnotes seem to reference white papers by this same author from the last few years. If I did not know better, I would say "Robert Hockett" was the name of a committee, rather than the name of an individual. (The only unfortunate flaw in the book, for those who follow footnotes, is that they seem to have been renumbered from a continuous numbering in the proof stage, to a by-chapter numbering in the final publication. Thus, references to other footnotes, supra or infra, are misnumbered.)
In sum, this is a valuable roadmap for the most important destination of our lifetime. Will it be consulted by those who need it? I hope so.

Bob Dylan & William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It, by Andrew Muir

James Klagge's review

Dec 17, 2020  

An interesting read. I first really got interested in Dylan's work after reading Bob Dylan Performing Artist 1974-1986 The Middle Years in 1991. You generally have to listen to bootlegs to appreciate all the differences/nuances of Dylan's performances, but I found it fascinating and entertaining. And it makes sense that the same would be true of performances of plays. I know less about Shakespeare, but Muir made a good and interesting case. The subject also interests me because, as a scholar of the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein I have focussed on his lectures, and how they differ from and enrich his writings. Similar issues arise when thinking about the ideas of Socrates and Jesus, who operated only as performing artists!
Worth the read for those who want to go beyond the printed word to the living word.

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

James Klagge's review

Nov 14, 2020

A timely book, well worth reading.  It seems to have been completed in 2019, and is written in such a way that it is irrelevant whether Trump was re-elected or not.  I started reading it the day before the election, and finished a week after it was called by the media for Biden.  But the issues raised are relevant regardless of who is elected.  And, indeed, there was no landslide for Biden.  Many said Biden was the only democrat that could have beaten Trump--which shows that we are a long way from addressing, much less solving, generations-long issues of racism in the USA.
Glaude takes Baldwin as a lens to see our history and situation, and especially appropriates Baldwin's realistic and begrudgingly hopeful but by no means optimistic view of things.  I had only read Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," and none of his later works, which Glaude focusses on.  Nevertheless, Glaude shares enough about Baldwin and his work that you don't really need to know much.  It helped me to watch a few YouTube videos of Baldwin to get a better sense of him.  
Four years ago Glaude did not vote for Clinton (pp. 169-170), and suggested other black voters refrain as well.  Apparently he later recommended only that blacks in non-battleground states not vote for her.  His intent was to shake up the Democratic party, never imagining Trump could win.  He now says (170): "I was wrong, and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake."  
But, in any case, there is no reason to think that the election of Biden will make for a big improvement.  Perhaps the inclusion of Harris as VP gives slight hope for the future.  The most that can be said is that we at least avoided the disaster of another term for 45.  
But I have spoken with young black men who really were indifferent to the outcome of this election, feeling that neither result would make any difference to their future.  That is a difficult thing to hear, but we need to find a way to understand that pessimism.  I think it is more important to understand that, than to try (endlessly and hopelessly) to understand how anyone could support 45.  
The "Begin Again" title and theme of the book comes from Baldwin's on-going willingness to keep trying in the face of disappointment and failure.  And that dogged hopefulness but not optimism was the main message of the book.  Perhaps the best message for us here and now.

League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946, by Ken Krsolovic, and Bryan Fritz

James Klagge's review

Nov 02, 2020 

I loved this book. It had just the right combination of pictures, baseball info and historical info. I especially enjoyed the stories about important or just interesting games that occurred at League Park. The Cleveland baseball team has had precious little to celebrate over the years, winning titles in only 1920 and 1948. But the 1920 series was at League Park. The park had an infamously short right field fence which was a wall 20 feet up, and then a screen for 25 more feet up. It was a sort of mirror of Fenway Park, but harder to play, since the screen did not predictably bounce the ball back. As with other old parks, the dimensions were dependent on the dimensions of the block where it was located. It is nice to see that some new parks are being built with oddities that make them interesting again.
The Cleveland AL team vacated the park in 1946, and it gradually went down hill from there, being either dismantled or neglected. The book was published in 2013, before any renovation took place. However, I visited the site in summer of 2017, by which time the place was in good shape, if not quite thriving. There is a well-kept ball field, though it has astroturf, unfortunately. And there is the small but interesting Baseball Heritage Museum housed in the old ticket office--the only original structure remaining on the site. It was a pleasure to visit.
I grew up near Cleveland as a baseball fan. My grandfather (born in 1899) lived on Linwood Ave, just a block or 2 from the park. He told stories about the park when he was young, such as offering protection for a dime for the cars of fans who drove to games. Since there was no on-site parking, only street parking, kids would climb around on the open cars of that era, potentially doing damage. It sounded sort of like a protection racket. Knowing my grandfather, it might have been. The park site was chosen before cars were a thing, and the owner was also the owner of the local streetcar line, so they supported each other.

The Plague, by Albert Camus

James Klagge's review

Apr 14, 2020  

I read this during the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. The issues we are dealing with are largely raised in this novel. While the plague of the novel might be seen as a metaphor, I read it for its account of what an epidemic is like and how people deal with it. Camus apparently based his account on information from actual epidemics, and it rings true:
"The only question was what measures should be adopted. ... Richard said that the great thing was not to take an alarmist view. ... He knew quite well that it was plague and...were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was...the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say that it wasn't plague. ... Richard pointed out that this justified a policy of wait-and-see..."
"...I take it you know that [medical] work of this kind may prove fatal to the worker."
"...the death-graph was rising less steeply. Only they lacked adequate means of coping with the disease. 'We're short of equipment...we're short of manpower too'."
"...imprisonment was tantamount to a death sentence, owing to the very high mortality prevailing in the town jail.... ...everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison."
"...the disease...sent men out to live, as individuals, in relative isolation. This, too, added to the general feeling of unrest."
"...the chief source of distress, the deepest as well as the most widespread, was separation..."
"...they had come to count less and less on a speedy end of the epidemic."
The novel is philosophical, but mostly because of the conversations that characters have in which they make philosophical comments. The main characters take a fully atheistic viewpoint. Some would find it odd that an atheist can have moral or altruistic motivations, but Camus makes this plausible:
"...if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort. ... And this is proved by the fact that no one threw himself on Providence completely."
"...mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence."
"...a fight must be put up...and there must be no bowing down. The essential thing was to save the greatest number of persons from dying....And to do this there was only one resource possible: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical."
Reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Ivan: "...who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment's human suffering?"
"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences."
"Can one be a saint without God?--that's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today."
"...he could do nothing to avert the wreck. He could only stand, unavailing, on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart, unarmed and helpless yet again under the onset of calamity."
" has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need to consider is the answer given to men's hope."
The one piece of music that was mentioned more than once is one of my favorite blues--"St. James Infirmary." I never realized how suited it is to a pandemic.
The closing passage is chilling foresight: "...the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trucks, and bookshelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."
And so it has. The novel covers the whole course of its plague--some 10 months, from April to February. We are only in the first months of our epidemic, not knowing how long it might last.
When I have travelled in Europe I have seen plague monuments, the most memorable being the Plague Column in Vienna. I never thought that would mean anything for me.

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth, and Gayle Dean Wardlow

James Klagge's review

Apr 10, 2020 

A book after my own heart--based on careful research through obscure sources. One of the authors, Wardlow, has been researching Robert Johnson for over 50 years. The book is also well-written and the story well-told.
Robert Johnson was the first Delta blues singer I heard, on the King of the Delta Blues, v. 1, LP, in college in 1973. That led me to other Delta blues singers, and then also to electric Chicago blues. I always wondered how he would have sounded if he lived a little later in the electric era. It turns out there's a bit of evidence about that. Johnson was visiting Harlem in 1938 with Johnny Shines, when a local electric guitarist (p. 245) "took them to the club where his guitar and amplifier were set up and let Robert try his hand at playing it. Although he liked the volume, Robert told the guitarist and Shines he 'couldn't make it talk' like he wanted." I like to think, though, that Elmore James is what Johnson might have sounded like if he had lived longer. Johnson's loner and wanderer persona also likely would not have suited him to be part of a band.
The authors do a good job of identifying and explaining away infamous myths about Johnson--especially the ones about selling his soul to the devil, and how he died. But there is a recent one that they never mentioned--that (some of) Johnson's recordings were sped up slightly when they were issued. His issued recordings do sound somewhat ghostly (higher and faster? presumably that is what makes him memorable), and sound unlike other Delta blues singers. I have a cd-r produced by John Gibbens of his songs slowed down (about 20%?), which makes for interesting listening. The theory certainly has its opponents, but I would have enjoyed a discussion. Presumably the authors did not wish to dignify it with a response.
All in all, a fine book.

How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi 

James Klagge's review

Dec 28, 2019

An important book, but also problematic, in my mind.
The first 15 chapters offer a thorough survey of the many and overlapping (intersecting) -isms: Racism, sexism, etc. It is the most careful and concise dissection of all its manifestations that I know of. This is important material, and deserves to be read by all.
In the last chapters we are told of the many cancer woes that the author and his family have encountered. It is amazing that he has written and accomplished as much as he has in this situation.
But the author then choses to use cancer as a metaphor for racism and its intersectional manifestations. I feel this is an unfortunate choice. The metaphor entails that society is seen as a sort of organism. Once you think in this way, then the parts of society--especially people--are seen as parts of an organism. Yet when an organism, like a person, is in danger, it makes perfect sense to sacrifice the (good of the) parts to the good of the whole. After all, the patient or the doctor will not take a vote among the organs of my body as to how to proceed. E.g., I will sacrifice my appendix when it threatens my health, I will cut off my arm if it is crushed under a rock that prevents me from getting help, I will kill any cancer cells I can if that will help me to survive cancer. When the author then speaks of treating racism like a cancer, that means sacrificing the "cancerous" parts (i.e., racist people) as a legitimate means to counter racism. It is not that the author directly advocates killing racists--but this is the apparent implication of the metaphor. And while the author does not go this far, he does advocate a non-democratic approach to racism.
The author decides that his long-time attitude--that racist attitudes lead to racist policies, so we should change racist attitudes to change racist policies--is wrong. Thus he decides we should stop focussing on changing racist attitudes and start changing racist policies. This sounds good until you think about how this could happen. On p. 232 we are told:
"Figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy. Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy. Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute antiracist policy."
This sounds like the author has given up on democracy. If we trust in democracy, then to change racist policy we have to persuade or vote out racist policymakers. And to vote them out we have to educate voters. In the closing pages the author's use of the cancer metaphor sounds a little scary (pp. 237-8): "Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or the immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities , that kill undetectable cancer cells. ... Ensure there cancer cells of inequity left in the body politic...." If the metaphor means anything it is that whoever is in charge (the doctor, the patient, the philosopher-kings) can make decisions for the good of the whole at the cost of the parts. That is beneficent autocracy at best and totalitarianism at worst. But neither is democracy. If the author does not intend these implications, then he should rethink his use of the metaphor.

Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, by Imani Perry

James Klagge's review

Nov 09, 2019 

A wide-ranging view of life articulated and shared.
The only observation I'll share is interesting that her (Catholic) Christianity is important to her but she makes almost no effort to share it with her sons. I can see intellectually why one might want one's children to "decide for themselves"...but since religion is as much a practice as a belief, and it is gained as much by osmosis as by instruction, no exposure (to speak of) leaves one somewhat unprepared to engage with religion later in life. She does emphasize the heritage for her sons that comes from the generations that went before, but she doesn't emphasize the importance, indeed often the necessity, of religion to those previous generations. Mightn't carrying on the work of past generations require, or benefit from, the very thing that she holds back? So her treatment of religion felt somewhat puzzling to me.
Well worth reading--certainly by Black mothers of sons, but as well by all who look after and look to the next generations.

Swann's Way (In Search of Lost Time, #1), by Marcel Proust

James Klagge's review

Jul 17, 2019 

For the sheer love of language, Proust is the best writer I have read. It amazes me when that can be true even though I am reading him in translation. For love of language he ranks up there with, and probably above, writers like Dylan Thomas, W.G. Sebald, and Bohumil Hrabal. And although I have somewhat less love for psychological reflection, Proust does more of it than anyone I have read or encountered. And more than I would want to do myself. But it rings true nevertheless, even if rather obsessive.
The most notable thing about the writing is the endlessly long sentences. Hrabal also sometimes writes in long or endless sentences, but Proust's seem to be artfully done. I know nothing of French, so I can't judge, but the translator, Lydia Davis, has produced English sentences that go on for long stretches, but which are perfectly grammatical and understandable. It must have been like working a cross-word puzzle for each sentence--I don't know how she did it, or how long it must have taken her to do it. So, to me, the translation is an incredible accomplishment, for which I am very thankful. The length also sometimes comes from contrived comparisons of the sort you find in Homer's Iliad, in which one description leads to a whole other scenario.
The psychological, and sometimes philosophical, reflections were also impressive. A few that caught and held my attention:
p. 151: "Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor."
p. 317: "Like all those who enjoy the possession of a thing, in order to know what would happen if he ceased for a moment to possess it he had removed that thing from his mind, leaving everything else in the same state as when it was there. But the absence of a thing is not merely that, it is not simply a partial lack, it is a disruption of everything else, it is a new state which one cannot foresee in the old."
p. 427 (as he struggled with experiences that did not fit his desire that Gilberte love him): "And while my love, ceaselessly expecting from the next day an avowal of Gilberte's love, annulled and undid each evening the badly done work of the day, in the darkness inside me an unknown seamstress did not leave the pulled threads in the scrap heap but arranged them, with no concern for pleasing me or working for my happiness, in the different order to which she gave all her work. Showing no particular interest in my love, nor beginning by deciding that I was indeed loved, she gathered up those of Gilberte's actions which had seemed inexplicable to me, along with her faults, which I excused. Then the first and second acquired a meaning."
Are these psychology or philosophy? I'm unsure.
I plan to read the following volumes, but perhaps only one a year!

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

James Klagge's review

Nov 23, 2018

A great book. I read it to honor the end of WWI 100 years ago, but worth reading at any time. An articulate and thoroughgoing indictment of war. Written as a tragedy, from the German side. I have read a good bit about WWI over the years. In addition to a couple of histories, I am familiar with Wittgenstein's experience as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army--which agreed with this novel in several ways. And I am also quite familiar with Jaroslav Hašek's account in the novel "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War." That covers almost the very same territory, but from a comic/slap-stick/farcical perspective. Both are worth reading. They are really complementary.
I first read this novel in 12th grade, and did a joint report on it and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." I still have the report--I'll have to dig it out and see what I said then. This time the passage that stood out to me was about a soldier's reluctance to talk about war (p. 161): "...a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?" Putting certain things into words gives them a reality that one is not ready to engage. I have not been in war, but I can see that I have felt that way about some emotionally difficult things in my life. Perhaps it is a gender thing, since sometimes women seem to think it is best to "talk about it." But this helped me to understand why I might feel differently.
I only noticed the pun after I thought this sentence, but: The author, Remarque, must have been a remark-able man. The book is so honest, and sensitive in its own way, and intelligent. Remarque wrote the book in the '20's and it felt like a comprehensive indictment of war. Yet it is shocking to realize that WWII would follow after this so soon. "When will we ever learn...When will we ever learn?" The book was banned by the Nazis in 1933.

In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, by Giorgio Van Straten 

James Klagge's review

Oct 20, 2018 

Upon seeing that I was reading "In Search of Lost Books," my wife's comment was "They are in the piles on my side of the bed."
A fun book to read with several little-known but interesting stories about books that might have been. I really knew of only one of the cases the author discusses--Gogol's unfinished sequel to "Dead Souls." But I know of several other cases (not discussed by the author), including a few that are quite personal:
-Of course there is Aristotle's lost treatise on comedy, the subject of Eco's The Name of the Rose.
-Aristotle's lost dialogues. These were supposedly lost in the fire at the Library of Alexandria. That would make a good subject for a novel.
-Some of Wittgenstein's diaries. In the mid-1990s the heirs of a friend of Wittgenstein's, Rudolf Koder, sent the Wittgenstein estate a diary that Wittgenstein's family had given to Koder as a keepsake after Wittgenstein's death. This was then published by Ilse Somavilla, and then published with English translation by Nordmann and me. It covered 1930-32 and 1936-37, both private and philosophical reflections, that are quite interesting. This diary was completely unknown and unsuspected until its appearance. An almost-lost book.
-Wittgenstein kept diaries irregularly over many years, so it is hard to be sure what originally existed. Bartley published an infamous book about Wittgenstein in which he claims to be recounting some dreams of Wittgenstein while concealing the source of his information. It would make sense that he had access to a diary from 1920. When researching his own biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk learned that after Wittgenstein's death a crate of his stuff was found in an apartment where he had lived, labeled "Kaufmann." Wittgenstein's executor, Rush Rhees, unaccountably had it shipped to Walter Kaufmann (presumably the only Kaufmann he could think of). After several months it was returned to Rhees, with suggestion that it was meant for Felix Kaufmann (a friend of Wittgenstein's from the Vienna Circle days). It turns out that Bartley's book was commissioned several years later by a series editor, Walter Kaufmann. It would make sense that there was a diary in that crate, but it has never been revealed. Walter's son told Monk that his father would never have taken something like that. Felix died in 1949, and had no heirs that might have saved the crate. We'll never know.
-At various times Wittgenstein burned or had burned for him notebooks in which he kept preliminary reflections that served as sources for his typescripts. As with the diaries, it is hard to know what may have originally existed. For example, Wittgenstein's wartime notebooks cover 1914-very early 1917. There may have been notebooks that covered 1917 that he had destroyed, or there may not have been ones then. Similarly for his later work. In the late 1940s Wittgenstein lived for a time in a cottage on the remote western coast of Ireland, and he had a caretaker named Tommy Mulkerins who did various chores for him. While researching his biography Monk also interviewed Tommy. He recalled that he had burned a large bunch of papers at Wittgenstein's request. Presumably these were such preliminary notebooks. Monk asked Tommy if he had ever considered saving any of these papers. Tommy's utilitarian reply was--"why would I? They were written on both sides."
-My father-in-law was a Presbyterian minister who was one of the founders of the Recreation Workshop which sponsored an annual ARW (Arts, Recreation, Worship) conference. This still is thriving. He was especially interested in the theology of play. He told me he had been working on a book about this for a long time, but that while traveling once he had lost the manuscript. And he couldn't find the time to recreate it.
So, I found this book to be fascinating, as much for the lost books I know about, as for the lost books the author knows about. It was fun to read about and reflect on this. It was a great idea for a book!

The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, by Bertrand RussellDavid Pears (Editor)

James Klagge's review

Nov 15, 2017  

This is a great introduction to analytic philosophy. It includes 8 lectures that Russell gave in 1918 presenting his views at the time (which were always in flux). I first read these lectures when I was a sophomore in college, in 1973, and they convinced me to become a philosophy major. And look where that led... I went on to UCLA to get my PhD, and took a seminar in 1981 from David Pears on "The Middle Russell and the Early Wittgenstein." Portions of that became the Introduction to this book.
Russell may be wrong about just about everything, but his discussions are always clear and interesting and rich.
The lectures came at a difficult point in Russell's life. During WWI Russell had advocated for pacifism. This led to his dismissal from his post at Trinity College Cambridge in 1916, and then led to his arrest in 1917 for anti-war activity. These lectures were given every Tuesday for several weeks in early 1918. Between lectures 3 and 4 he was sentenced to 6 months prison. But there is no sign of this turmoil in his lectures. He served the time after the lectures were finished, and he later reported: "I found prison in many ways quite agreeable. I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, 'Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy'...." In his Autobiography he recounts his WWI prison experience in which the warder asks his religion. He replied “agnostic.” The warder asked him how to spell it. When Russell did so, the warder wrote it down remarking, “Religions are many, but I suppose they all believe in the same God.” Russell writes that this exchange kept him cheerful for a week.
I have taught this book in classes well over a dozen times over the years. Anyone interested in analytic philosophy should read it.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, by Mark Bray

James Klagge's review

Oct 23, 2017 

I found this book at a propitious time, shortly after I got back from the counter-protest to the alt-right rally in Charlottesville in August. That was my first experience with antifa. This is an excellent book to learn about antifa--although it is not an unbiased report. In fact it is written by an antifa sympathizer who is also a "scholar" of the movement. The author draws on many personal interviews with antifa activists to supplement a careful history and survey of the movement. But the book also advocates for resistance to fascism.
Antifa is a label for a wide variety of groups that actively resist manifestations of fascism around the world. It is not an organization to which groups belong. Perhaps you could say "antifa" is more an adjective than a noun. In Charlottesville there were no groups calling themselves antifa, but there were at least two groups, Redneck Revolt and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), who fit the bill. I would characterize antifa as groups who are willing to engage in violence to resist fascist behavior. In Charlottesville Redneck Revolt members carried wooden poles and semi-automatic rifles. The only violence I witnessed was a clash between a small group carrying confederate flags and a larger group of RR. An RR member swiped a flag and made off with it, another RR member got snatched trying to grab a flag and a melee ensued with those on both sides whacking each other with poles. It lasted a couple minutes. The flag bearers were outnumbered and retreated. This was a manifestation of the antifa slogan of "no platform" for fascists. When fascists try to spread their message, antifa will try to disrupt that. Thus, they can be seen as opponents of free speech for fascists. They will also try to disrupt fascist gatherings. This is what happened in Charlottesville. The alt-right had permission to use Emancipation Park as a gathering place for their demonstration at noon. Antifa groups arrived earlier and occupied the space and wouldn't leave. That led to various clashes, and the police dispersed the demonstration before it began. The antifa succeeded in the sense that they did not allow the alt-right an unimpeded platform for spreading their message.
It might seem wrong to shut down free speech when it is just speech. I think I believe that. But antifa see speech as just the first step in a dangerous slippery slope toward worse, so they resist as early as they can (p. 141): "Since the future is unwritten, and fascism often emerges out of small, marginal groups [as it did before WWII], every fascist or white supremacist group should be treated as if they could be...Hitler's first stepping stone." One antifa put it this way (p. 169): "You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don't have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don't have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don't have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don't have to fight them with tanks." We all know the poetic lament:
"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
In response to that, when Trump's Muslim travel ban was announced, antifa protesters proclaimed (p. 207):
"First they came for the Muslims, and we said 'Not This Time Motherfuckers!'"
As for my own experience of the antifa groups in Charlottesville, I have to say that I was glad that they were there. The police notoriously did not keep the peace, and it seemed very much to me that what peace there was stemmed from the deterrent effect of the aggressive and armed antifa. That is not how I will engage fascism, but I appreciate that at least in that context, the antifa were what allowed me to engage fascism the way I did.

John Brown, by W.E.B. Du Bois 

James Klagge's review

Oct 17, 2017 

Today happens to be the 158th anniversary of John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. I was there just a month ago, and took that as a motive to read this bio by Du Bois. Du Bois is an excellent, literary writer, and it was a great book. It was published in 1909, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the raid, and offering an African-American perspective. I have not read any more recent or more scholarly bios, but this relied primarily on letters written by Brown or others who knew him, so it at least offers an important personal perspective.
Brown moved around a lot as a youth and adult, but he often lived in Richfield or Hudson, Ohio. That is very near where I grew up, and some of my family now live in Richfield. I have been to one of the houses (now an antique store) where he once lived. Thinking back on his time there, when he was later living in Massachusetts, he wrote (p. 37): "I can look back to our log cabin at the centre of Richfield with a supper of porridge and johnny cake as a place of far more interest to me than the Massasoit of Springfield."
At age 12 Brown drove a herd of cattle hundreds of miles through wooded wilderness, and was given hospitality along the way by a pleasant and friendly man (p. 10). While staying there Brown befriended the man's young slave boy, who was about the same age as him. He felt the slave boy was "fully if not more than his equal." But the host family regularly berated the slave boy, and Brown witnessed them beat him mercilessly with a shovel. Slaves had no human father to look after them, and Brown wondered "Is God their Father?" Then he determined to do something for slaves.
Brown was as close as there is to a modern-day Old Testament prophet. Certain in theology; humble in demeanor. "I have never made any business arrangement which would prevent me at any time answering the call of the Lord....I have permitted nothing to be in the way of my duty, neither my wife, my children, nor worldly goods. Whenever the occasion offered, I was ready. The hour is very near at hand, and all who are willing to act should be ready" (p. 111).
Much of his adult life was preparation for his raid. He had read all the books on insurrectionary warfare, and studied the guerrilla warfare of the Spanish chieftains against the Romans, and the Circassians against the Russians (p. 127). He lived and fought in Kansas, preventing it from becoming a slave-state. Many of his allies there were racists who fought slavery there b/c they didn't want ANY blacks in the state! So Brown was a pragmatist. Brown renounced non-violence as a form of cowardice (p. 88): "It seemed to Brown nothing less than a crime for men to lie down and be kicked by ruffians." In response to terrorism by pro-slavery forces he oversaw the capture of 5 of the worst of them and "raised his hand and at the signal the victims were hacked to death with broadswords" (p. 90 & 79). Brown said (p. 91), "God is my witness, we were justified under the circumstances....I believe I was doing God's service....He has used me as an instrument to kill men, and if I live, I think he will use me as an instrument to kill a good many more." "To recognize an evil and not strike it was to John Brown sinful. 'Talk, talk, talk,' he said derisively" (p. 204).
His plan for Harper's Ferry was to create a defensible independent community for blacks in the Appalachian mountains. It was well-thought-out, with a constitution and officers. But his main problem was convincing people to take the risk. One of his great personal friends and supporters was Frederick Douglass--but Douglass would not endorse the raid b/c he saw no way for it to succeed (pp. 177ff). Of course, he was right, and the raid lasted less than 24 hours. Brown's legacy stemmed more from his death than from his plan. Douglass claimed (p. 211): "John Brown began the war that ended American slavery, and made this a free republic."
An echo into the present:
p. 152: Brown recruited freed and escaped slaves in Canada to fight with him. "The question came up as to what flag should be used; [they] said they would never think of fighting under the hated 'Stars and Stripes'....But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question." This reminded me of present-day supporters of the Confederate battle flag who argue that slavery long existed under the US flag.
Two months ago I was present in Charlottesville, VA, as part of the counter-protest against the Alt-right demonstration supporting the confederate monuments there. I went as part of a group of 8 who committed to non-violence. But the chaos there was such that I have to confess I was thankful for the presence of antifa groups, one of which called itself the Sons of John Brown.

Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934-1995, by Iris Murdoch,

James Klagge's review

Mar 04, 2017

The fact that I finished a 600 page book in a few weeks indicates I found it interesting. On the other hand I marked in pencil passages that I found, well, noteworthy, and there were only about 3 dozen, which is only about 1 every 17 pages. Nevertheless, the letters were quite readable. I would have edited it much more severely, but I can imagine others found things interesting that I didn't.
Murdoch is interesting to me because she was both a philosopher and a novelist. Her philosophical views (mostly from the '50's through the '70's) were somewhat influential. I especially liked her little book "The Sovereignty of Good." Yet she felt very unconfident, disclaiming (pp. 395 & 489): "I am not a philosopher." But later in her life (p. 571) she calls philosophy a sort of "addiction" for her. She was an extraordinarily productive novelist, publishing 26 novels over 40 years. I have read just two of her novels--I especially liked "Under the Net," and somewhat liked "A Fairly Honourable Defeat."
Murdoch was one odd bird, at least in her personal life. She was bi-sexual, carrying on multiple seemingly physical relationships with both sexes at the same time, sometimes through a couple decades, with people as much as 20 years younger or older than she was. At least on the evidence of these letters (I haven't read her biography) she was very faithful to these people (and to her husband) over decades as a friend as well. In the mid-60's she characterized herself three times (pp. 293, 304 & 347) as a "male homosexual in the guise of a female," whatever that means. Perhaps the most positive spin on her polyamory is what she wrote (p. 347) "I can't divide friendship from love or love from sex--or sex from love, etc." And she had quite a healthy appetite for friendship.
While she must have met a large number of famous people, she doesn't write much about them. She has a nice description of Sartre (p. 35), and while she liked Derrida as a person (pp. 511-12) she despised his views (pp. 511-12 & 573) and refused to consider him a "philosopher." She met Wittgenstein twice briefly, but there was nothing about those meetings here, unfortunately.
Scattered throughout the letters are striking obiter dicta:
1967, p. 337: "I think the Beatles ought to be jointly Poet Laureate." This gives her the distinction of suggesting a literary prize be given to musicians almost 50 years before the Nobel Committee got around to the same idea.
1988, p. 548: "…revolting women's studies. Oxford now has a (ghastly) women's studies [major]."
1988, p. 550: "Of course schoolchildren should never be allowed to come near philosophy."
The one thing that gave me a person connection to the letters was her correspondence with Philippa Foot, whom I knew as a professor during my graduate studies at UCLA. Murdoch twice reprimands her (pp. 363 & 376) for writing illegibly in her letters, and even the address! I can identify with this, as comments that Foot wrote on seminar papers were in fact routinely illegible.

Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King Jr. 

James Klagge's review

Jan 27, 2017 

A book everyone should read. I had read it before many years ago, but re-read it now for an adult Sunday School class at a small black church. Many people knew little about King's speaking beyond the few video clips you hear over and over--"I Have a Dream" and "I've been to the Mountaintop." These are sermons he preached in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The book was originally published in 1963, but this 2010 reprint is missing two of the original sermons, with no explanation.
The main thing to say about this is how relevant these messages are to today. It is uncanny, as though he is speaking to Donald Trump America.
Some examples: p. 2: "There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think." p. 3: "Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts." (Read: "fake news" and "alternative facts".) p. 5: "A nation…that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan." (Read: Let's cut funding for education more so that even more dumb people will swallow fake news and alternative facts.) p. 76: "We see it [evil] in high places where men are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest."
Another way his views are relevant here and now is his views about non-violence. It occurred to me how much of contemporary TV and movies is filled with (what I'd call) "righteous violence." The standard plot of much of modern culture is unrighteous violence committed, and then it is fixed by so-called righteous violence. Then the show or movie ends and we assume that they live happily ever after. King emphasizes how false this is--that violence (righteous or not) leads to more violence, unless someone stands up to break the cycle. And the problem is not just on the screen. Iraq's attack on Kuwait brought on the righteous violence of the Gulf War under GHW Bush, which brought on 9/11, which brought on the righteous violence of the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq under GW Bush, which brought on ISIS. If Trump has his way he will "wipe radical Islam off the face of the earth" (that's righteous violence at its clearest), and God knows what will happen after that. We need (the voice and spirit of) King now more than ever: "In spite of the fact that the law of revenge solves no social problems, men continue to follow its disastrous leading. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path" (p. 35).
One drawback of the book (which King himself acknowledges on p. xiv) is that sermons are meant to be heard, not read. And in fact reading them is much more ponderous than listening to him preach. So it is useful to at least read some passages aloud. In our class we happen to have a man with a voice and cadence that sounds surprisingly like King, so it's fun to hear him read.
Finally, I was interested to find that the quotation always attributed to King, that "the most segregated hour of the week is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning," is in fact attributed BY King to a "Professor Liston Pope" (p. 105), who I discovered was dean of Yale Divinity School. But I was unable to discover where he said that.

The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, by Mike Rose

James Klagge's review

Jan 01, 2017 

A qualitative, anecdotal look at the intelligence involved in a variety of blue-collar occupations, with special focus on restaurant service, hair cutting, plumbing, carpentry, wiring and welding. This leads to a more generalized discussion of types of intelligence and the role and organization of vocational education. The author's goal is to get us to understand and appreciate manual intelligence, and get us to rethink the apparent differences between manual and conceptual intelligence.
The author's points were not news to me. I grew up (as the author did) in a solidly blue-collar household, with a father who was a truck mechanic and who built the house we grew up in. My brother followed him into that occupation. I was never the "handy" one in the family (and now I'm a Philosophy professor), but I never lacked an appreciation of the intelligence and value of so-called manual work.
This book got me thinking about my own relation to handiwork, and it turns out I was not as bad in this realm as the contrast might suggest. I have, over the years, designed and built 2 large bookshelves and a large CD shelf. And I have fixed some plumbing problems. I never worked with my dad, as my brother did. But I think I learned from afar the logic of figuring out and fixing things.
This sort of interest carries over into my teaching, in that I am always looking for applications of the topics under discussion that students would understand and appreciate--even in Philosophy classes! And my latest book--Simply Wittgenstein--is filled with applications of his ideas to real-life issues. It bothers me when people teach philosophy as such an abstract topic that most people can see no relevance in it.
The approach of the author, to rethink the relationship between conceptual and applied knowledge, is one I appreciate. But I feel that some universities are taking it too far. My university, Virginia Tech, is in the process of implementing a core curriculum that essentially presupposes that all core courses must have and be taught as having applications to moral issues. I think that is a worthy interest, but it is going too far to require that of all such courses. It pressures teachers into giving lip-service to a topic, instead of focussing on just those cases where it really works. And it suggests that no core courses should be truly abstract/conceptual. So, perhaps the author's perspective can be carried too far.
The author does address the occasional blue-collar prejudice against "book learning." This came to the fore in the recent presidential primary debates when Marco Rubio, in a November 10, 2015, debate, declared "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." Apart from the fact that the monetary claim is questionable, it seems an unfortunate swipe at a field that has its own value and importance to culture. In fact my nephew is a professional welder, and so he and I posed for a picture displaying our abilities and shaking hands.
I plan to pass this book on to my hair cutter. She is a very intelligent woman who, however, grew up in a family that owned a salon. I'm not sure of her original aspirations, but she ended up joining this family business. We have great conversations, and I hope she feels appreciated for her intelligence.

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free Worldby Tara Zahra

James Klagge's review

Aug 31, 2016  

This book covers my own family history, since all 8 of my great-grandparents came from East Central Europe in the late 19th Century. One topic that I hadn't thought of was the effect of immigration on the villages that were left behind. After WWI when Czechoslovakia became its own country, the government tried to entice emigrants from the previous Austro-Hungarian Empire to come home. Apparently this was not very successful, until the US helped out by passing Prohibition. A Czech official was quoted as saying (p. 114): "The majority of re-emigrants proclaim that 'it's better to earn less and be able to drink again'." After WWII the Czechs again tried to entice emigrants back home, with the promise of housing and businesses taken from the Sudeten Germans who were expelled. But (p. 228) by the time that a group of miners returned from France, the Czech neighbors had already claimed what the miners were supposed to get.
There is a fair bit of repetition in the book and not a very strong narrative flow. It felt like the editor wanted the book lengthened. But several points were clearly made: The ambiguity of what is voluntary and what is coerced emigration; the vagueness of the distinction between political and economic emigration; the loss experienced by the emigrant even when there are undoubted gains; the endless problems that Jews faced even after the devastation of WWII. Apparently some of the few Jews returning to Poland after the war were met with sentiments such as (p. 234): "What, you're still alive?"
My own family story (the one I know) is that someone stole the family cow, and that was the last straw that led the family to leave the old country. So we were economic, not political, emigrants. But emigration was not an unmixed blessing. After my grandfather was born in Chicago, my great-grandmother returned to Chotusice (in Bohemia) for a year or so, and took her two sons with her. She eventually returned to Chicago with them, but obviously it was not an easy decision.
The end of the last chapter the author is a bit more expansive, discussing some of the very current immigration issues, and the losses of emigration.

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke 

James Klagge's review

Aug 20, 2016 

Perhaps the one book that everyone should read.
I first learned of it when a fellow W&M alum sent it to me when I was in grad school in 1976 or 1977. Why she sent it to me I no longer recall. I certainly was not a poet, nor someone who thought of myself as any kind of artist. I was studying analytic philosophy in the citadel of that subject, at UCLA. Still, trusting her I read it…and loved it. I've probably read it a dozen times over the years, but only just now in the last 10 years. It is a book that easily bears re-reading. It addresses issues endemic to the human condition--work, loneliness (or solitude), creativity, the wish to succeed and the wish to love and be loved, spirituality. They are in no way limited in their interest to those who aspire to be poets.
The recipient of the letters was 19 when he began the correspondence, and amazingly Rilke was only 8 years older than him! They are letters most relevant to young people. I was in my early 20's when I first read them. And I have given copies of this to at least two young people in my life who did aspire to creativity. I know one of them really loved the book.
The idea of "Letters to a Young…" grew out of this book. If you search that phrase on Amazon (or Goodreads) you will find scores of books, for every "profession." I hope they were written by wise people. Rilke certainly, even at his young age, had wisdom. The "Letters to a Young…" that I have read are Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist, and William Sloan Coffin's Letters to a Young Doubter.
No doubt this book was the entryway to Rilke's other work for most. Be warned that his other work--poems mostly--is an order of magnitude more difficult than these letters. Ordinarily I guess you could say that Rilke writes for himself, or for God. In any case, for a being well beyond me! I continue to (try to) read his other work, but it's a real challenge. Perhaps he should have written "Letters to a Young Reader of Rilke's Other Work."

Harvey Pekar's Clevelandby Harvey Pekar

James Klagge's review

Oct 06, 2015  

You probably have to know Cleveland or like Harvey's style to appreciate this book. It is very low-key, but endearing in its own way.
I am not a comic/graphic fan. I know about this only b/c my mother worked with Harvey at the VA back in the day, and told me about him. Apparently he was as much the curmudgeon in life as he was in his comic book prose. The story line is autobiographical and very slice-of-life. If there is any profundity in it, it lies in its honesty and working-class attitude about life. I think folks who grew up in (well, near) Cleveland in the 50's-60's-70's could enjoy this. However I was one of those who grew up in the suburbs that Harvey thinks undermined Cleveland.
The drawings that accompany the text are as down-to-earth as the text itself. Everyone seems to be scowling.
I liked the appearance of Zubal Books in the story. Unfortunately, while it is still in Cleveland, it is now only an on-line bookstore! In fact bookstores loomed impressively large in Harvey's life. When he was young he was drawn to Kay's Bookstore. He comments (p. 58) that Mrs. Kay, the proprietress, of the (largely used?) bookstore "was really nasty to customers…she had no patience with customers. You just had to count on getting insulted when you got there: 'Don't handle those magazines so roughly!' ." That reminded me of two local bookstores over the years--both now closed. Cantos Booksellers, in Roanoke, had an owner who would criticize customers (Kathy, in fact, was called out) for opening books and looking through the pages! She was afraid that they would get damaged, I guess. And somehow the owners of Ramshead Bookstore, also in Roanoke, managed to sound superior and snobby to customers--anyway, that kept me from wanting to go there. I hope any remaining bookstores realize they can't any longer afford to drive away their customers. It is good to know there still is one good bookstore in Harvey's area: Check it out!
Just recently Cleveland Heights has dedicated a park to Harvey:
I wonder what he would have thought. His widow supposed: "I can hear Harvey saying, 'Go ahead; do what you want. What do I care? I'm dead,' " Brabner joked.

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak 

James Klagge's review

Aug 06, 2015 

An impressive yet unsatisfying book. The plot is rather simple and does not carry the book. The characters are more important, but they are more told than shown. And in the case of Lara, who is central, she remains a mystery to me. While Zhivago says how drawn he is to her, you don't feel that or see why that is so. The descriptions are full and often moving--especially the descriptions of snow and weather. You can see why this was made into a successful movie. Perhaps the best thing about the book is the ideas. Most of the book is a description of Zhivago's thoughts. This is well-done, though it does not make for a compelling story.
Some of the passages that got my attention:
(P. 482) Lara replying to Zhivago: "I don't like works devoted entirely to philosophy. I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life. To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horseradish by itself." I have to admit I don't like horseradish, either alone or as a seasoning.
(PP. 517-523) Zhivago finally has 2 nights of peace and quiet to write. Over a few sections we hear about his process and thoughts as he is writing and rewriting poems and other short pieces. He reflects on the relationship between language and thought. He characterizes his experience of inspiration. I don't necessarily agree with this account, but it may be true for him and it is interesting to hear (p. 518): "In such moments Yuri Andreevich felt that the main work was not done by him, but by what was higher than him, by what was above him and guided him, namely: the state of world thought and poetry, and what it was destined for in the future, the next step it was to take in its historical development." (P. 522): "All his life he had dreamed of an originality that was smoothed over and muted, externally unrecognizable and hidden under the cover of conventional and habitual forms; all his life he had striven to elaborate this restrained, unpretentious style, through which the reader and listener would grasp the content without noticing what enabled them to do so." I don't know how successful these descriptions are, but I appreciate the attempt to write about writing.
Later in the same chapter (pp. 532-540) Zhivago has to decide to get Lara to leave without him, and then to come to terms with this loss. In these passages we hear his interior monologue, and though it seems a bit stilted at points, I again appreciate the attempt to give an interior account of agonizing.
Then at the end of that chapter (pp. 541-551) Zhivago is visited by Lara's estranged husband who was a revolutionary leader and now is to be purged. We overhear their extended conversations, much about revolutionary motivation, and the personal and political tensions of revolutionary life. The honesty of these passages is perhaps what most made the Soviet censors unable to allow this book to be published. Apparently there was discussion about the censorship, and it was stated that Pasternak could not fix the problems by deleting specific passages--that the problems pervaded the whole work. I can see that that was true, but these passages summarize the approach that pervades the whole. (The letter said that the whole fault of the book is something "which neither the editors nor the author can alter by cuts or revisions…[but] the spirit of the novel, its general tenor, the author's view of life.") Love, freedom, spirit and individualism are values that systems of any kind have trouble with.
The book ends ("Part Seventeen") with 25 poems by Zhivago. They are part of the book, not a mere appendix. There is no framing given for them, but they are presumably what was found of his work after his death. Again, I appreciate this idea--especially since Pasternak had had Zhivago tell us about the process of writing these, then to provide them. But, being a dunce when it comes to poetry, I'm sure I did not get from them what Pasternak intended. They felt to me more like an appendix, and a useless one at that. But I liked the idea that they might serve an important purpose.
I read this book first 43 years ago. It was one of the assigned books in a "Freshman Seminar" my first semester at William and Mary, for a course called something like "Changing Perspectives on Revolution," taught by a sociology professor. We also read Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," Dostoevsky's "The Possessed," and I'm not sure what else. It seems like an interesting idea for a seminar, though not one that would get much interest these days. While I have seen the movie, I did not remember any of the interesting ideas of the book. But its attempt to capture the ambiguity of a cause impresses me. I'm glad I read it.
Postscript: I was moved to (re)read this book because of almost accidentally reading Thomas Merton's 45 page reflections on Pasternak, the novel, and the Nobel affair written in 1960 (in Disputed Questions). Merton does a good job of bringing out the spiritual dimensions of the book, and its fundamentally non-political nature. Unbeknownst to Merton the book was in fact used by the CIA supposedly against the USSR. But Merton brings out how the book stands for the individual and as much against materialistic capitalism as it does against materialist communism. In fact, as he points out, the worst character in the novel, Koramovsky, is an amoral capitalist. And I found out from Merton's essay that Pasternak studied Kantian philosophy in 1912 under Hermann Cohen at the University of Marburg in Germany. So I guess he knew about his horseradish.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

James Klagge's review

May 16, 2015 

I'm really not sure what to think about this book…or even what I do think about it. It has an endless supply of racist stereotyping and countless occurrences of "nigger". (Also, copious use of marijuana, which I don't find humorous.) The writer is very skillful and clever. The book is funny while raising interesting issues. I suppose the racism is "allowed" because it is written by a black author and the various uses and comments and views are expressed by black characters. So I guess the reader can't complain? I don't know. It was a way for the author to retell several racist jokes that presumably would have been lost to history (at least in polite society). It made me think of 40 years ago when I was living for a few summers in Eastern Kentucky. A young boy said to his father, "Tell Jim that one about the nigger and the watermelon." The man, whom I did respect, had the sense to say, "I don't think Jim wants to hear that one." Apparently Beatty didn't have anyone telling him that.
Perhaps the idea is that this is a way to raise racial issues in an entertaining fashion that wouldn't/couldn't be raised (or paid attention to) otherwise. There is a good discussion of engagement about racism on pp. 261-3, including this: "Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he'd never heard a patient of color talk of needing 'closure.' They needed revenge. They needed distance….He said people mistake [various things] for closure, when in reality what they've achieved is erasure."
I said the author is very skillful and clever. This is evident on page after page in stories and dialogue. But the author falters in bringing an overall story together. The end feels just garbled.
In the end I'm glad I read it, but unsure if I should be glad I read it. Decide for yourself.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs 

James Klagge's review

May 07, 2015 

A powerful book that was worth reading. The author did a fine job of gathering material from nearly all aspects of Robert's life and turning them into an engaging narrative. The story helped me somewhat understand life issues that I have not had. But at a deeper level the book made clear that no one really understood why Robert lived his life as he did. There was a deep-seated tie to his family, friends and neighborhood that he couldn't and didn't want to transcend. Yet he couldn't find a way to honor that tie and move on to anything significantly different from that in his life.You got the impression that Robert needed to self-medicate with marijuana to survive the contrast between Yale and East Orange. And he needed to self-medicate to survive East Orange. That became an addiction that he couldn't ultimately escape and which led to his drug dealing. And that led to his death. It was a sort of slow inevitable spiral that took about 10 years.
We can wonder about such allegiance to ones roots in our mobile society. But I see traces of it in most everyone. For instance, slight accents or even just pronunciations--people retain these as a badge of honor connecting themselves with their past. Robert's badge of honor was much much larger, but not different in kind. And his badge was dangerous as well.
I had a brief connection to someone somewhat like this story, with the same outcome. About 20 years ago, due to a church connection with a neighborhood in Chicago, I got to know a Chicago teen named Patrick Hudson. He stood out as a leader among his friends. They camped in Tennessee and then came to Blacksburg as part of a week-long inner-city church program. The connection between the churches was such that Patrick was eventually legally adopted by a friend here in Blacksburg as his only way out of a gang situation. (In fact Patrick literally begged for a way out of his neighborhood.) He lived here for at least a year going to Blacksburg HS. He was eventually expelled for drug dealing, but then he spent another year living in Floyd working on a farm with another friend in total isolation from temptations. Yet these opportunities to escape his dangerous past were hopeless. He eventually decided he wanted to go back to Chicago. He was involved in a gang-related murder, was convicted and sentenced to the state pen. I wrote to him a few times but never heard back. Partick was (is, I suppose) a bright talented leader. He was never the shooting star that Robert was, but similar. My main recollection of him was at a 4th of July celebration here in Blacksburg. Several of the teens who had also come on the trip from Chicago were lithe and talented at doing flips of various kinds. This was the beginning of the hip-hop era and hip-hop "moves" were a big deal. Patrick was a large man--not tall or fat, but pretty much like a defensive lineman. He was not a natural for gymnastic moves, but in the couple hours that afternoon he taught/made himself to do back flips. It was amazing to watch his tenacity. If only he could have steered that tenacity in other directions.

Kreiseliana: About and Around Georg Kreisel, by Piergiorgio Odifreddi (Editor)

James Klagge's review

Feb 28, 2015 

Kreisel was a mathematical logician who knew Wittgenstein during his student years. Through a cosmic coincidence, Kreisel died today! As I was preparing to write this review, I checked Wikipedia to confirm that he was still alive (in which case I would have begun the review: "Kreisel IS a mathematical logician…"), only to discover his passing on March 1, 2015. Wittgenstein called Kreisel the most able philosopher he had ever met who was also a mathematician.
This book is a collection of essays honoring him on his 70th birthday (1993), so it is quite a coincidence I happened to finish reading it on the day of his death. Some of the essays are reminiscences, some are philosophical reflections on his work, and some are purely logical or mathematical. I skipped the latter. I first knew of Kreisel from his contribution to a collection on Philosophy of Mathematics that was an optional book in a undergraduate course I took on "Advanced Logic" in 1974. That course, in which I did quite well and which certainly inspired me, deluded me into thinking I could do work in logic at the graduate level. My first term in graduate school at UCLA I took a course in Mathematical Logic from the Mathematics Department, and only escaped by the skin of my teeth. I've continued to have an affection for mathematical logic, but now only as an amateur and on-looker.
Kreisel is a sort of rebel figure in logic, motivated as much by inspiration as by calculation. He is also apparently a singular figure in life, inspiring people and repelling them--often the very same person. It is this sort of combination of interesting work and interesting life (like Wittgenstein) that attracts my interest.
And, of course, he knew Wittgenstein. He had a rather irreverent view of Wittgenstein (which seems to have pleased Wittgenstein, who perhaps tired of being revered). He went to lectures and became friends with Wittgenstein in 1941-43, when he was an undergraduate. Then he did war work 1943-46. And he attended Wittgenstein's last year of lectures 1946-47.
His mathematical prowess led to his assignment to work in hydrodynamics and naval engineering during the war. Francis Crick, who first came to know him at that time, reports (p. 26): "I believe that one of his first efforts was to apply the methods of Wittgenstein to the problem of mining the Baltic." However, that sounds apocryphal to me. Another of the contributors to this volume was his "significant other" for 2 or 3 years in the early 1960's. She says (p. 69); "Ludwig Wittgenstein's ghost kept haunting us throughout our time together."
Kreisel was apparently equal parts loving and cruel. But this made him fascinating to many people, including non-academics. He is known to have had a long-standing relationship with Iris Murdoch, and she is thought to have modeled some of her characters on him. Perhaps even the (anti-)hero in "A Fairly Honorable Defeat."
The contribution to this collection I most enjoyed was the paper (pp. 365-388) "Mathematical Logic: What Has It Done for the Philosophy of Mathematics?" This gave (me) a fine overview of certain large issues, placed Kreisel's work in relation to them, and briefly reignited my unrequited love affair with logic.
Kreisel was famous for his extensive correspondence with fellow logicians. This provided my one and only contact with the man. I wrote to him in 1999 asking permission to translate from German and republish a short essay that he wrote about Wittgenstein and his work. I sent the letter to his last known address at Stanford (though he had retired from there in 1983). I soon received a hand-written reply from Salzburg, Austria, telling me in no uncertain terms that I did not have his permission. And, for good measure, he repeated that I did not have his permission, in case the previous paragraph was in any way unclear.

Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem

James Klagge's review

Dec 18, 2014 

By the Talking Heads--Probably my favorite album of all time. That doesn't make this a great book, but it made me greatly interested. Someone once said: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" (sometimes attributed to Martin Mull, this author attributes it to Frank Zappa on p. 33). But even if so, reading about music can still be interesting and fun, even if not in the same way as listening to it. And of course it helps to be quite familiar with the music already.
This book has a nice balance of commentary on lyrics, on music, and on general background and context. And the author is a novelist who is intelligent and interesting to read. He was captivated by the album when he was about 15, and he writes about that experience. I was 24 or 25 when the album came out. In any case, we were both in that susceptible age when music makes an indelible imprint.
In the late 1970's I was living in LA doing a PhD at UCLA. I had a friend who was doing an MA in Film, and he was into the punk scene there. He had grown up in Pittsburgh and knew Chris Frantz (TH drummer) from high school. So he introduced me to the TH music as soon as it came out (1977). I saw the TH perform at UCLA outdoors on 11/19/78 and then at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on 12/18/78. In fact I met them briefly before the Agora concert b/c I helped the chef (a friend of my brother's) prepare and serve the pre-show dinner that was catered for them. (Another "connection": one of my prof's at UCLA--Rogers Albritton--had known Jerry Harrison (guitar/keyboards) at Harvard when Harrison was a student there.)
I found the author's commentary and contextualization unfailingly interesting. One thing that I have always wondered about is the transition in "Memories Can't Wait" at 2:22 or so, where the lyrics are "Everything is very quiet." It is a most wonderful moment, and I have always wondered how to characterize it. Is it a key change? The author (p. 71) calls this point "a musical transition that is also a release" and that "a harsh wheeling pitch now smooths itself into mournfulness." On p. 105 he comes back to this passage and says that the song "changes gears." I appreciated that the author was as fascinated by this passage as I was.

The Trial, by Franz Kafka 

James Klagge's review

Oct 13, 2014

I've read this a few times, always in connection with teaching it in a class. Students tend to dislike reading it, and I don't blame them. It doesn't make sense--defies explanation, but it seems like it should make sense. So scholars (and students) try to discover what K really did wrong to deserve his fate--what was he guilty of? There are many conjectures--mistreating women, being too self-confident, original sin, etc., etc. Not that any of these would justify death. But the opening line of the book is: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested." Interpreters don't seem to be able to comprehend that he had not "done anything wrong." It is reminiscent of the opening of the Book of Job, where God declares 3 times that Job is "perfect and upright" and later that he "committed no sin." But his friends can't believe that and keep insisting he must have done something wrong--just like the Kafka scholars can't accept that Josef K was innocent, and insist that he must have done something wrong.
We have a strong tendency to look for a rationale for what happens, even if there isn't any more than a cause. So people looked to gods for explanations of weather and sickness. When things happen in the human realm, we still have that tendency. Depression must mean something is wrong--I'm a wimp (I deserve it), or, the kids are driving me nuts (It's their fault). So, when Josef K is persecuted and ultimately executed by a judicial system, we look for the rationale. Kafka is showing us that in some cases there is no rationale. Reading the novel is irritating b/c we don't want to accept that. The novel shows this, b/c we can't really take it in if someone merely tells us. This novel is a good illustration of how literature can convey something philosophical better than "straight" philosophy could.
The novel is thought to foretell the unintelligibility of bureaucracies, especially under Soviet communism. I experienced that when my daughter was in a car accident with a Greyhound bus, which was not her fault--but Greyhound was not willing to admit fault. I had to call their insurance adjuster every day for weeks on end before they finally offered a settlement. I don't know if Kafka was prescient, but he was himself an insurance adjuster!
The novel has also been thought to be a metaphor. Ivan Klima has seen it in light of Kafka's own failed love relationship. More generally, I think the situation of a person rejected by a lover is much like the situation of Josef K--what have I done wrong, what could I do to set it right? But a better metaphor was suggested by Friedrich Waismann--Josef K is like someone who has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease that has no reliable treatment (cancer?). There is no rationale to why I have the disease, even though we wrack our brain to think what we did wrong. Then we think about all the treatments we can or should pursue. It can take possession of our life, even if agonizing about it cannot help anything.
So, I find this book to be very rich, even if I also find it to be rather unpleasant to read. But I recommend it--just not for pleasure reading!

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

James Klagge's review

Jun 06, 2014 

This is a fascinating book. It provoked controversy upon publication from conservative quarters because it was written by a man who is Muslim, but that is completely irrelevant to the book and its evaluation. I am not a scholar myself, so I cannot assess the book's scholarly merits, but as a well-read lay-person, I found the book struck just the right tone with regard to the scholarship. The scholarship is relegated to the back of the book--not footnotes or endnotes, since the material is not "numbered" at all. Rather, each chapter has a section in the back discussing in prose form the scholarly background for the claims made in the chapter. (As a side note, the first drafts of my book "Wittgenstein in Exile" were written in the same fashion, but I only got negative comments on that arrangement, so I ended up making the scholarly background into traditional endnotes. This shows how that arrangement can work successfully.)
I am well-read on issues of the "historical Jesus," having read a lot of Marcus Borg and the "Five Gospels" by the so-called Jesus Seminar. I expected this book to cover similar territory, but it is more wide-ranging and more insightful (I thought). The author addresses various aspects of Jesus in each chapter, setting out the historical evidence and comparing it to the Biblical presentation, and drawing conclusions. (By the way, the author hardly draws on the so-called Gnostic gospels for his evidence.) In chapter after chapter he made points in a way that I had never considered, using evidence carefully and imaginatively. Again and again I was impressed. Anyone interested in the historical roots of Jesus and Christianity would learn something from this book that is interesting and surprising. And the book is well-written.
While there is precious little evidence that can be brought to bear on the historical Jesus beyond what is in the Bible, there is a lot of evidence about what things were like and what Judaism was like in the Holy Land at the times in question. And this can be used to cast illumination on the Biblical accounts (often to the detriment of the Biblical accounts). The main conclusion to be drawn was that the Biblical accounts of Jesus are quite different from what Jesus was probably like. But the author has interesting explanations for why that is.
To me, the most significant claim was that the historical Jesus would have been, through and through, a Jewish revolutionary who had no interest in non-Jews, and no interest in non-violence. Those are pretty shocking claims for a (quasi) pacifist Gentile like me. There are clear passages in the gospels where Jesus does seem to advocate or allow violence, but I always thought they were outweighed by more numerous passages of a pacifistic bent. The author claims the more pacifistic passages were part of the Christian movement's attempt to seem more acceptable to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem in 66 CE.
Another issue that surprised me, and which I had never given any thought to, was the place of Paul in the early church. While I have always known that Paul advocated outreach to the Gentiles, while Peter was more committed to remaining connected to Judaism, I always assumed Paul simply won that debate outright. In fact, it seems that Paul really lost that debate at the time, but that the destruction of Jerusalem in 66 made the point moot, since the advocates of a Jewish understanding of things were wiped out. Paul's understanding then won by default, as there was no real Judaism that the religion could cling to. What I found fascinating was the claim that the opponents that Paul generally addressed in his letters were advocates of the Jewish understanding, and that the Book of Acts recounts the clash that took place between Paul and Peter, but that Peter's victory is minimized by the retrospective turn of events. Another fascinating claim is that the first head of the church was in fact Jesus' brother James. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. Peter became bishop of Rome, but was never head of the church itself, so to speak. But James was such a strong advocate of the Jewish understanding of the movement, that his role and leadership were minimized in retrospect after the destruction of Jerusalem because of the need of the church to grow without Judaism.
All of this may sound wild, but I was impressed by the evidence and the way it was deployed. My one criticism, which is more of a question, is this: The author casts considerable historical doubt on the plausibility of many of the claims of the Bible--but to do so, he relies on other historical claims. Of course, one has to do this--rely on some evidence for the sake of questioning other claims. But this raises the question as to whether he rather selectively chooses evidence to rely on. Couldn't that evidence itself be questioned as vigorously? ALL the evidence is ancient and sparse! But, the picture he was able to assemble with his evidence just seemed plausible to me--and that is itself some support. He offered a plausible account that surprised and impressed me.
This leaves the question to be asked--why did Jesus have the significant effect he had? If he was so much like a lot of other Jewish revolutionaries at the time, why did he have a lasting impact at that time? And, more relevantly to me--if that is what Jesus was probably like, why should I give my allegiance to him? I guess my answer to that is that I owe more credit to the early church's molding of a message than I had supposed. Somehow I thought it was the Jesus himself I was really committed to. Now I think he was a small kernel of a movement that generated a message that I am committed to. That is somewhat humbling, since I've had many reasons to distrust the church and how it molds messages. But I am thankful for the chance to have a better understanding of what may lie behind all of this.

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

James Klagge's review

May 01, 2014 

I think she'd better run for President in 2016! I don't really think she will, but I hope she does. She just has the sympathy for and commitment to the cause of ordinary people that I'm afraid Hillary lacks. Hillary is too beholden to the vested interests. Warren relates some unsolicited advice that Larry Summers gave her (p. 106): You can be an insider or an outsider. "Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People--powerful people--listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don't criticize other insiders." Hillary is an insider; Elizabeth is an outsider.
When Warren was running the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP funds, in 2009 the Treasury was running stress tests on major banks--to show how the TARP funds had saved the banks and to see how they were now doing. Apparently they all passed. Warren asked Geithner (p. 115) for info on how they had fared and what the standards and models were. But all that info remained top secret--even to the oversight committee! When Geithner's book comes out on Monday, I wonder if he'll mention that?
When Warren ran for senate against Scott Brown they actually found a way to keep big outside money out of the campaign. They took what they called the People's Pledge in January, 2012 (p. 231). "Both candidates pledged that if any outsiders came in to help us, we would penalize ourselves. The penalties would carry real weight--whoever was helped by a Super PAC ad would dip into our own campaign contributions and give money to charity. We worked it out so that if Karl Rove ran $1 million in ads against me, Brown's campaign would have to give $500,000 to the charity of my choice." And vice versa. This is a classic prisoner's dilemma situation, so there are real incentives for it not to hold, but it did. A very clever idea, which I wish more candidates would try. She credits Brown for sticking to it.
In a time when so much seems to go wrong in politics, Warren offers a breath of fresh air. I hope it can turn into a breeze and then a gale of fresh air that might shake things up.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

James Klagge's review

Apr 24, 2014 

Great, great book. I first read it over 20 years ago when I first formed that opinion. When I read it this time (in honor of G G-M's passing) I worried whether I would still like it. In fact I think I liked it more, and am probably at a better stage in life to like it. I hope I'll read it again in another 20+ years. As a matter of fact I remembered hardly anything of the book as I re-read it.
The book reads like a whole history of (a) creation from (its) Genesis to (its) Apocalypse. (Isn't the last book of the Bible sometimes called the Apocalypse of John?) I won't push that comparison any further--but it is a sort of self-contained (solitude) and complete history of a family--their rise and fall. There is the invasion of their paradise by modern progress (the banana company) with funny descriptions of their incomprehension. There is a remarkable account of the destruction of the community by the corruption of this progress. Much of the book is taken up with how the characters of the family aged (and almost couldn't die). This was a theme that struck home with me (nearing 60--and I imagine did not strike home with me last time I read it). The story really sweeps you along--I read the last 150+ pages in one sitting. (Luckily the academic year ended on Saturday.)
Occasionally I read a "commentary" along with a book. (I did this for Joyce's Ulysses, which I hated--FYI.) I happened to own a rather pedestrian one, which was helpful in keeping straight about the characters and events. However, I'm not sure that GGM really expected us to keep them straight.
Read this book, sometime in your life. I'll probably get (even) more out of it next time.
Addendum: I actually saw G G-M once in person.  My son, Nick, and I were visiting college campuses in the summer of 2002 as he was deciding where to apply.  After touring Princeton, we were walking along Nassau St, and along walks G G-M!  He looks exactly like his pictures in real life--there was no mistaking him.  I just smiled.  I don't think he noticed.  Nick went to Columbia.

The Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Breton Connelly

James Klagge's review

Feb 09, 2014 

This was an amazingly good book. I am a fan of Classical Greek culture with some background, having taught an interdisciplinary course on The Classical Age 9 times over a period of 20 years at Virginia Tech. I know a good deal about Classical sculpture and architecture, and was pleased to find that I haven't been misleading my students about anything, except…the Parthenon frieze. While this book is incredibly wide-ranging, its real contribution to scholarship is a reinterpretation of the frieze. It is traditionally thought to represent the Panathenaic Procession, an annual event (though more significant every 4 years) staged for several centuries from the 5th Century BCE until a Roman emperor outlawed pagan celebrations in the 4th Century CE. The author does a very respectable job of questioning and marshaling evidence for interpretations. Her theory is that the frieze represents the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, required by the Oracle at Delphi for an Athenian victory pitting Athena and her allies against Poseidon and his allies (who had wanted to be the local god). This general conflict between Athena and Poseidon is known from the West Pediment. The story of the family of Erechtheus and his daughters is only known from a fragmentary play by Euripides named "Erechtheus." She apparently first put forward this hypothesis over 20 years ago, and has been building her case ever since. That mythical event was apparently the origin of the Panathenaic Procession, so the traditional interpretation is not wildly off. But she argues, for instance, that the Procession was a contemporary event, and no other art on the Parthenon (or really anywhere on temples) depicted contemporary events. I had always assumed (because tradition had always assumed) that the Parthenon was so named after the Virgin (Parthenos) Athena. But it turns out that Parthenon is plural, meaning of the Virgins. In the story the sacrificed daughter had 2 sisters and they had once agreed that if one had to die, all would die, so it is really 3 virgins who are commemorated by the building and in the frieze. There is a lot in the book, covering broad sweeps of Greek history and culture. (The 80 pages of end notes insure that this is not meant as a popularization, but a scholarly work. Yet is does not read like a scholarly work.)
Not being an expert on these matters, I'll be interested to know what the scholarly reaction is. She marshals considerable evidence for all her claims, but I can't really know if she is "cherry-picking" evidence, and ignoring counter-evidence. It does seem odd (here is one objection) that the mythical story behind the frieze could be so little-known that it appears in only one fragmentary play. It seems that something so important to the Athenians would have had wider distribution. We, eons later, are of course at the mercy of historical contingencies that affect what documents and artifacts from the ancient world survive to our times. But it just seems surprising that it could have worked out this way and been so hard to discover. Another issue (perhaps another objection) is her use of the term "democracy." She takes the frieze and much of Athenian culture to reinforce the democratic spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole community. This is a fine goal, but it is not specifically democratic. In the late 5th Century there was an on-going political conflict between democratic and oligarchic rule in Athens. Plato specifically enrolled himself among the enemies of democracy. But that in no way undermined his support for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. So I'd say her use of democracy is misleading.

Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor, by David Hilfiker

James Klagge's review

Feb 25, 2013 

This book is a memoir by a doctor who moved with his family to inner-city Washington DC to care for and work with the poor. He was part of a medical mission, Christ House, which is itself part of a far larger collection of missions that go under the banner of the Church of the Saviour. The Church of the Saviour was started about 65 years ago by Gordon and Mary Cosby. A week ago today I was in the very building and ministry that this book is about, visiting with Gordon and Mary, whom Kathy has known for 35 years. They are at the end of their lives, but the flame burns brightly in them, their vision, and the ministries it has spawned. Those familiar with Elizabeth O'Connor's "Eighth Day of Creation" know another manifestation of that Church.
The fact that Christ House has continued now for over 30 years is a testament to the faith and work of folks like the author, Hilfiker. The book was written almost 20 years ago, about experiences reaching back 30 years. It is a sobering book for anyone unfamiliar with urban poverty. And it is sobering to think that things can only have gotten far worse in the intervening 20 years. But it is an extremely honest and revealing book about the personal challenges of trying to do something positive in those circumstances. Of the many stories of individuals in this book, it was revealing that only the last full chapter was a story with a genuinely positive ending. And the epilogue suggested some other positive outcomes. But perhaps the moral of the stories was that outcomes and consequences are not the appropriate currency of ministry. What Hilfiker learned was the importance of being with and accompanying people on their journeys, and the realization that we are all children of God who try the best we can...and still fail. But that is ok, and that is the message of Jesus. About 35 years ago I was dipping my toes into similar challenges in Chicago, and took another direction. But the challenges are ones that I still can hear and feel.
Mary Cosby was a delight to talk with, finding relief in her condition which required others to look after her and being unable to look after numerous ministries. Her ministry was now one of friendship and encouragement. Gordon, on the other hand, almost literally on his deathbed, continues to minister in any way he can. He told us he is focussing on deepening his prayer life (which is really saying something). He talks with God, and spent some time wondering about how he can distinguish between God's voice and his own inner voice. A voice in prayer recently told him that the needs in Anacostia are so great that he needs to begin a ministry there and raise $300,000 to do it. He could hardly believe he was being told to do this, being unable to visit people anymore--but he has persevered. He asked God whom he should ask, and God told him to ask three people-the first being himself. Suffice it to say that Gordon raised $250,000 in short order. Because what he still has is a prophetic authority that he can bring to the better-off among us, and so he continues to do that. I am told that Gordon once preached a sermon on a Sunday morning and when, the following Sunday morning, he preached the very same sermon, he was asked why--had he not had time to prepare another? No, he said, he could have prepared another, but as far as he could tell no one had done anything he called for the last Sunday, so he decided they needed to hear the call again! Gordon is the closest living thing we have to an Old Testament prophet.
Dr. Hilfiker went on to found a new medical mission, Joseph's House, for those dying of AIDS, bringing him even closer to the poor he struggled to understand and love. This mission was oriented more toward the journey and less toward the outcome. This mission continues, and we have visited there as well, meeting with a friend who volunteers and lives there. Dr. Hilfiker has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but continues to share his journey: .
Words like "God" and "Jesus" hardly appear in this book, but if you want to know what it is to live in Christ, read this book, and other books that have come out of the Church of the Saviour community, including Gordon's collection of sermons: "By Grace Transformed."
Addendum: Gordon Cosby passed away into the fullness of God this morning--Mar 20, 2013.  
Another Addendum, March 1, 2021: 8 years later Gordon's vision in Anacostia has come to fruition

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

James Klagge's review

Apr 12, 2012 

Subtitled: "A Biography of Cancer." A long and sometimes difficult book--but well-written, well-done, and well worth reading. How a doctor near the beginning of his career would have time to research and write this is beyond me. I'm glad he did.
When I started reading this I noted on Goodreads: "No, I don't." ...that is, don't have cancer. But I feel better prepared if I am diagnosed, or if someone I know is diagnosed. In fact I have not been much touched by cancer, but it did start me to thinking about how cancer has impinged on my life. My maternal grandmother had a radical double mastectomy in the 1950's. I didn't know this and wouldn't have guessed until my mother told me--maybe sometime in the 1990's. And my mother suspected that she hadn't in fact had breast cancer, but it was done as an overly aggressive preventive measure. That is very much in tune with the story told here. There was a trend at that time toward thinking that radical surgery was the fix. This was connected with a typical conflict between the doctor's desire to win at all costs, and the adverse effects on the patients. But it is true in this case that my grandmother did not die of cancer (if she ever had it). She lived to 94. My first conscious encounter with cancer was when my paternal grandmother's sister, who was a smoker, whispered to my parents about health problems that she had, but she would not use the word "cancer" and she would not in any case see a doctor. She did presumably die of lung cancer (in her 70's), but without having to suffer any of the indignities of treatment. "Cancer" is often feared as a dangerous word, as though saying it can cause it. And once when someone found out I was reading this book, the person reacted as though I was acting foolishly or playing a dangerous game of tempting cancer by reading about it. That magical aspect of cancer was never discussed in the book, but I recall it as a common feeling--especially in past decades. I suppose it is connected with the fact that we really don't understand the causes and cures for cancer, and what we don't understand we tend to treat supernaturally.
Another part of my history with cancer is that both my parents were smokers. My father switched from cigarettes to cigars and then a pipe before I was born. My mother smoked cigarettes until the mid-70's. I was quite aware when the Surgeon General's report about smoking came out in the mid-60's. That slowly but eventually led to both my parents stopping smoking. I am very impressed that they were able to stop, b/c I know that is not easy. I have never smoked, but I have 2 relatives who struggle with smoking--being unable to quit permanently.
My own closest connection with cancer is colonoscopies, which I have had every 5 years since I was about 40. These have been done b/c of my supposed family history. I am surprised how completely painless they are, and I would say they are a use of technology at its best. So, while no one close to me has died of cancer, it is striking how the structures that have grown up around cancer have involved me, as they have involved almost everyone.
I was very interested in the understanding of cancer that has emerged. We tend to think of cancer as a thing, but it really is not. Talk of a war on cancer is misleading, just like talk of a war on terror is misleading. Cancer is not an invader, so much as it is an exaggeration of processes that are normal in cells--reproduction and growth. Cancer occurs when genes in cells that control division through acceleration and braking and cell death become dysfunctional through mutation. Sometimes the mutation is caused by external agents, sometimes by inheritance, and sometimes by accident. That is why it is so hard to conceptualize a "cause" of cancer. It is really caused by things that occur naturally in cells, only when they get out of control. And the ways that can happen are quite varied. So the means for preventing or treating cancer are also quite varied. Since cancer is in a sense an exaggeration of life, it will not be cured per se. It can be countered in various ways. Again, like the war on terror, it will not be won--rather, we can hope for a satisfactory state of protection.
It was interesting that this was called a "biography" of cancer. A biography generally starts with a birth and ends with a death. This story has neither--but it certainly is a kind of life story. I am very grateful to researchers who have made as much progress as they have on ways to prevent, screen and treat cancer. It sounds like it is often a grueling process. In 2 weeks I am running in the local Relay for Life to raise money for cancer research. I have done this for a few years now. Having read this book, I know much more about what people are dealing with, and what can be hoped for.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone

James Klagge's review

Feb 06, 2012 

A necessary book for whites to read. It presents the striking analogy between Jesus' crucifixion and blacks' lynching. In fact (in most translations--e.g., New Jerusalem Bible) Acts 10:39 reads that "they killed [Jesus] by hanging him on a tree." But none of the great theologians of the 20th Century ever so much as noted the comparison. And apparently the white Christian mobs viciously and publically lynched blacks or watched and cheered without ever noticing the irony that they were playing the role of the mob that called for and brought about Jesus' crucifixion. Not only was none of this noted during the decades of lynching, but white awareness of that era, to the extent that it ever existed, has rapidly turned to total amnesia. The theological moral to draw is that understanding of the cross comes from identification with the despised and outcast. "The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians" (p. 161).
A memorable passage (p. 124): "Like Jesus who prayed to his Father to 'let this cup pass from me,' blacks also prayed to God to take away the bitter cups of slavery, segregation, and lynching. Just as Jesus cried from the cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' many lynched victims made similar outbursts of despair to God before they took their last breath, hoping for divine intervention that did not come. New Testament scholar William Barclay called Jesus' cry of abandonment 'the most staggering sentence in the gospel record.' Black cultural critic Stanley Crouch called it 'perhaps the greatest blues line of all time'."
James Cone has been a great theological commentator for over 40 years, and this book is as good as any of his work.
Addendum: I just checked the "Cotton Patch" version of Luke-Acts by Clarence Jordan (1912-1969). Sure enough, he makes the connection (10:39): "they lynched him, stringing him up on a tree." So the "great theologians" didn't make the connection, but a white one did. Jordan was the founder, in 1942, of the (in)famous interracial Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. His renderings of the New Testament (done in the late 1960's) were meant to show its relevance to the world of the deep south of his time. Here is what Jordan had to say in the Preface to his "translation" of Paul's Epistles: "there just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for 'crucifixion.' Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term 'crucifixion' of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as 'lynching,' well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern 'justice,' and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched 'by judicial action' than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. 'See to it yourselves,' he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree."

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault

James Klagge's review

Dec 27, 2011 

This was well worth reading. Even though I know a lot about the civil rights movement, I knew much less about this 1961 portion than I had thought. Everyone knows that Rosa Parks desegregated bus transportation in 1955 by initiating the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That was a courageous and significant act. But its significance was largely symbolic, as it had virtually no effect in actually changing laws or customs in the South. This book shows the depth and extent of Southern resistance to desegregation, which was still fully entrenched in 1961. Unlike the 1961 Greensboro lunch counter desegregation, which was well-defined in time and space, the freedom rides were quite diverse geographically, and happened over a period of about 6 months, and were somewhat ambiguous in terms of what they achieved. They were not definitive legally. And it was really only quite recently, especially through the 2006 edition of this book, that the real significance of the freedom rides was assessed and fully appreciated. The freedom rides were the first systematic use of non-violent resistence, based very intentionally on Gandhi's precedent. This was important since it led to a bus being bombed with passengers in it, and led to 2 significant riots at bus terminals in Birmingham and Montgomery with multiple injuries. And it led to hundreds of freedom riders being imprisoned in Mississippi's notorious and violent Parchman's Farm for periods of a month. In the face of these dangers, riders never responded in any way but with non-violent resistence. It is amazing that no one died.
The freedom rides did not have any single or few heroes. But one of the figures mentioned many times in this account was James Bevel. One of my friends knew him (he died in 2008), and so I had heard of him before. Bevel was a significant figure in the civil rights movement, operating fully as an equal with MLK in the 1960's. In this book Bevel comes across as the most vocal and committed of the riders. Yet his life was a tragic one. He ended up hating all whites and moving to the extreme right on the political spectrum in the 1990's, and also had significant difficulties in his personal life. The untold story I heard about Bevel, that accounted for his personal disintegration, was this. In 1968 Bevel had King's personal phone number, but once when he tried to call from a noisy bar Coretta didn't recognize him and wouldn't put his call through to King. In anger he tore out that page in his black book. Shortly before the Memphis strike, Bevel got certain information that King would be shot if he went to Memphis. But having thrown away the personal number, Bevel was not able to get through to King to warn him not to come. After King's death, one night in a deep sleep King visited Bevel and said "until you can acknowledge your own responsibility in my death you will never be at peace"--confirming King's insistence that when we hate anyone anywhere we kill someone else somewhere else. Apparently this prophecy gradually but surely destroyed him. But he did accomplish incredibly important things in his life both before and even after this episode. He was instrumental in the 1995 Million-Man March in Washington DC. Bevel was one of hundreds of committed young people, black and white, who braved the dangers of the deep South to test and bring moral attention to racial injustices.

Bob Dylan: Writings, 1968-2010, by Greil Marcus

James Klagge's review

Nov 27, 2011 

I doubt Greil Marcus is a pleasant person, and I don't often agree with him, but he is well worth reading when it comes to Bob Dylan, rock music, blues, or old-time music. He knows a huge amount, and always has an opinion. He is very much a critic--in that he is very judgemental. I suppose that is not surprising, since he is basically paid to have an opinion. He is an intelligent music listener, which I aspire to be. He knows a lot about history, influences, social context, resonances--things that make music more meaningful for me. He seems often to write to impress, in that he makes allusions and assumptions that sometimes leave the reader (me, anyway) behind. This book is a collection of essays, most of them reviews, from over 40 years. It is not a book about that 40 years of music written in retrospect. If it were written in retrospect I expect it would be less strikingly judgemental.
It is interesting to compare GM to another music critic I enjoy reading--Paul Williams. Reading PW in the mid-1990's made me into the fan I am of Bob Dylan (and later Neil Young). But you might almost say PW is a cheerleader (or proselytizer) as much as a critic. His approach seems often to be finding what value he can in most anything (by Dylan). He wrote a multi-volume account of Dylan as a performing artist--v. 1 (1960-1973), v. 2 (1974-1986), v. 3 (1986-essentially 1990). (He has had to discontinue the series because of failing mental health.) 1986-1990 is considered to be perhaps Dylan's fallowest period, yet PW devoted a whole volume to it, where most would virtually skip over it. Reading his v. 2 was what made me a Dylan fan, especially his discussion of the music from 1975-1983. He finds much to love in this era of Dylan's work (which includes the much-maligned "Christian phase"). He tries to understand Dylan through empathizing with him, or trying to see what Dylan saw. GM dislikes huge swaths of Dylan's work--such as, basically, 1975-1996. There is little he appreciates between Blood on the Tracks of 1974 and Time Out of Time from 1997. He worships the 3 albums from 1964-1966 (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde). Those are two very different ways of approaching writing about an artist. I suppose they both have their role, which is why I read both. But I enjoy reading PW. I can't quite say I enjoy reading GM. I endure reading GM (endure the negativity and the arrogance or condescension) for the wisdom I can find in GM. You might say PW writes about the feelings evoked in him by his listening experiences. That feels like the difference--though maybe I haven't captured the difference correctly.
I got this book as a birthday present from my parents. I had seen that GM was speaking at the Akron Public Library, and I asked them if they'd go (and sit through his lecture) and buy the book and have him autograph it for me--which they did. How many parents in their 80's would do that? I enjoy collecting signed books. His signature is perhaps indicative of his self--it is a large illegible scrawl that looks like nothing so much as GOD, or perhaps COD. (Don't ask me how that could be his signature, but it must be, since it is directly below the words "to Jim". The only signature I have that is equally illegible is that of Gorbachev, which is written in cursive Cyrillic.) Reading GM is like witnessing God on the Judgement Day. Reading PW is like being with the Intercessor.

Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, by Stanley Cavell

James Klagge's review

Jul 13, 2011 

This is a memoir by a retired Harvard philosophy professor. I've never met him, but have read a few of his books. His highly cultured and literary style is not mine, but I have benefited from his work. I partly read the book with the hope of hearing stories about famous philosophers. In particular he was a good friend and colleague of Rogers Albritton, who left Harvard in 1972 to teach at UCLA, where I had him for several seminars and on my dissertation committee. It was from Rogers that we learned about Cavell's work. Last year I read an on-line blogged autobiography by another philosopher from about the same generation and an overlapping academic circle--Robert Paul Wolff. Wolff knew both men somewhat and described/contrasted them as follows:
"[Cavell] was very much a presence during the years I knew him in Cambridge, a burly, balding man with blond hair whose aura seemed to fill a good deal more space than his mere body. All of us looked forward with a slightly malicious anticipation to the moment when he and Rogers Albritton would first meet. They were equally brilliant, equally tortured and complicated, equally incapable of adopting or stating a philosophical position straight out, without doubling back on it, viewing it from an ironic distance, undercutting it, and then reaffirming it. But it was as though Rogers was Stanley turned inside out. The more Stanley expanded to fill all the available ego space, the more Rogers shrank into himself. It was a little as though Walt Whitman were to encounter Emily Dickinson."
I don't know about the accuracy of the contrast, since I don't know Cavell, but it rings true for Albritton. This comparison helps me see why I was attracted to Rogers, and suggests I would have had difficulty warming to Cavell. Cavell didn't have as much to say about Rogers as I had hoped.
Cavell chose to write this memoir as a sort of journal extending from July 2, 2003, to September 1, 2004, with dated entries ranging from a few to several pages. While this might have started with a purpose (relating the present circumstances to the past), this did not seem to operate for long. It seemed more to offer breaks to move on to other topics. It also permitted an undisciplined approach to chronology that produced more confusion and repetition than seemed necessary. The oddity of the approach came out when it became clear (he said as much) that he went back a few years later and corrected or elaborated sections, but did not change the entry dates and left the archeological evidence of the earlier version. E.g., illustrating this point as well as his writing style (p. 480): "The day before they left us, Claude visited Rene Char at his house in a neighboring village. I was about to say it was Cavaillon, but that is too big and bustling a place, where market day brought forth melons enough to sweeten the palates of parched multitudes. So is Carpentras too big. The other names that still register with me are Goult, Apt, and Bonnieux. (I have, after a happy search, just turned up the name of the reasonably neighboring village that Char was born in, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorge.)" This reminds me of an anecdote (though I'm still trying to remember the source) about a reasonably wealthy man in the past who could not find his umbrella and sent a servant to a neighbor's house with a note along the following lines:
"Dear So-and-so,
I cannot seem to find my umbrella and I have a feeling that I may have inadvertantly left it at your residence when last I visited there. If so, would you please give it to the man who delivered this note.
Many thanks,
P.S., I just found the umbrella in question, so please ignore the above request."
It was interesting to find that a tenured professor at Harvard could feel hurt that his work provoked little positive response for many years, as he tells it. I suppose these things are relative. One of the things Cavell reflects on in his work is for whom one is writing, or talking, and how we can have a claim to make the claims we do. I have recently published a book, and it is weird to await but get rather little response--as though one gave a long speech only to then notice that no one was paying attention, or that many people heard but have nothing to say in response. My wife is a preacher, and I have preached several sermons myself. In a typical mainstream Protestant church there is no response to a sermon--no vocal response during the sermon, and often no (substantive) response afterward. It can be as though no one was listening. And if one said some such things in a supposed conversation and got no reply that would be very strange. You have laid yourself bare, and others just stare. My sermons have nearly all been given in a smallish Black church where call-and-response is not automatic but is possible. And I always try to provoke such response. But there does not seem to be anything comparable in publication. So one waits. (Well, in this internet age, I do have 2 on-line reviews, 2 Goodreads reviews, and 2 Amazon reviews.)
Addendum: I finally found the anecdote about the umbrella.  Well, it was actually about a razor, but see Philip Jourdain, The Philosophy of B*rtr*nd R*ss*l, p. 71.

Brother to a Dragonfly, by Will D. Campbell

James Klagge's review

Jun 24, 2011

I read this once before, many years ago. And I had the author sign my book about 10 years ago. He is a legend in southern civil rights work. It was time to read it again. And as with other books I've reread, I remembered hardly anything except a certain feeling. But this one I was glad I reread. The story of Will and his brother Joe (the dragonfly) holds the reader's attention, but the theological moral comes near the end. Campbell learns/decides that everyone is a bastard, and God loves everyone, even the KKK. This makes his civil rights work extend to white racists as well--understanding how they are children of God too. This is a significant challenge to each of us, regardless of where we are--to love our enemy, or to stop thinking of them as our enemy. For example, the fundamentalist minister, the narcissistic co-worker. It's easy enough to agree with in the abstract, but an actual and ongoing challenge in the flesh. Well...what are we waiting for?

Migraine, by Oliver Sacks

James Klagge's review

May 05, 2011  

Recently I had what was diagnosed as an ophthalmic migraine, or a scintillating scotoma. This was the second event in about 2 months. There was no pain associated with it, and apparently it is not a dangerous condition, but it was certainly attention-getting. I had been interested in this book for several years, so I took the occasion to read it. While I am an Oliver Sacks fan, this is my least favorite of his books so far (I've read almost all of them). His strength is when he looks at some case study and follows it deep and wide. He is unequalled at that. Here he undertakes something else--to give an account of a wide-ranging phenomenon. Ideally this would amount to a theory of migraine--its cause, nature, and treatment. He fortunately is wary and honest enough to know that the phenomena of migraine are extremely wide-ranging, so the prospects of saying something both interesting and applicable to the full range of phenomena are small. But the desire to do so nevertheless opens one to the temptation of saying things that are vague or untestable. Sacks does not avoid these temptations. But for the most part he is true to the phenomena.
The deepest problem comes from the title of the book itself. We have this word "migraine," and so we suppose there must be something in reality that corresponds to it, about which we could have a theory. But when we are told that while "classical" migraines include headache and auras, and "common" migraines include headache but not auras, and auras by themselves can be "migrainous" phenomena even without pain (which is what I had), I wonder what you can do with that. One could take Wittgenstein's approach that a concept (like "migraine") can have a family-resemblance unity, that depends only on a variety of connections, none of which is necessary or common. Or one could take Socrates' approach that there must be some underlying unity of necessary and sufficient conditions (which seems awfully unlikely in this case). Or one could hold that the term "migraine" has just gotten out of hand, and is in need of some cleaning-up. This is the view sometimes called "eliminativism"--in that the term should be eliminated, and replaced by other more specific terms. This was the fate of earlier terms like "consumption" (the medical term, not the economic term--which was jettisoned in favor of more specific conditions such as pleurisy, lung cancer, emphysema, and tuberculosis). It would seem more profitable to separate out the variety of phenomena that go under the label of migraine, rather than persevering in a search for what holds it all together. This search for what holds it all together leads Sacks to emphasize the psychological over the physical aspects, since it's pretty clear there isn't a physical unity. Sacks may be right that we should not ignore the psychological aspects, but that may be more a consequence of his search for a unity--somewhere, somehow.

Gaps, by Bohumil Hrabal 

James Klagge's review

Apr 28, 2011 

Once Milan Kundera was my favorite Czech author. And I do love "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Joke." But traveling in the Czech Republic in 1999 and 2004 I was surprised to learn he was not so popular there. (ULB was not even in-print in Czech for many years until recently.) Mostly I think because he was an expat who moved to France in 1975, became a French citizen, and began to write in French. But he is also not typically Czech in style. Czechs don't identify with him the way they do with writers like Hrabal or Hasek. When I expressed my admiration of Kundera, I was told I should try Hrabal.
Hrabal and his character Hrabal, like Hasek and his character Svejk, are inveterate palaverers. (Kundera is more of a philosopher.) Palavering is a Czech hobby, mostly occuring in the pub. Hrabal's novels do not have much of a plot--but they have story lines. It is in the stories and how they are told that the interest lies. If you don't love the words, you won't love the books. So it is amazing to me that the charm survives translation from Czech to English. There are big differences between the languages that make translation problematic. And both Hasek's and Hrabal's novels have been called untranslatable. So I'm sure there is much to admire in this translation. Or else Hrabal's way with words transcends his way with Czech.
This autobiographical novel is told from the point of view of Hrabal's wife. It takes place in the years just before and after the 1968 Prague Spring and the Soviet reaction. At the end they are moving out of their old apartment, and she looks around and recalls many scenes portrayed in his novels. She concludes:
"I stood here dazzled by those images I thought were long gone and buried in the past, I stood here in the little courtyard and as plain as day could recount that life of mine, from the moment I first set foot here and saw that man through the open twilit window washing floors, that man who was to be my husband, I saw myself in those days before we met, as the woman who had wanted to commit suicide, but once I was with my husband I had neither the time nor the inclination for such thoughts, for over the years my husband had so engaged me, frustrated and enraged me, that I had even forgot to have a child of my own, my husband was enough of a handful...I shrugged, what can you do? In tears I ran down the stairs, to smudge my sleeves on the peeling walls one last time..." (I did not insert the ellipses.)

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, by Michel Foucault

James Klagge's review

Jan 12, 2011 

I am a philosopher, and (analytic) philosophers do not consider Foucault to be a philosopher. I read this b/c I was part of an interdisciplinary class in which it was assigned. I'm glad I have now read something by Foucault, but I did not find him to be very interesting, and his confusions were a constant bother to me. His favorite method of argument is to find an example or an anecdote and treat it as though it shows something. Generalizations are constantly being made from mere illustrations. I'm not sure what all his fans see in him. I guess he stokes in people a sense of suspicion or cynicism that things are not what they seem. Some people have a temperament for thinking like that. You can't prove it or disprove it. It's not to my taste, I guess.

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

James Klagge's review

Oct 06, 2010 

I recall a friend telling me, over 30 years ago, that this was his favorite novel and that he reread it periodically. I try to follow up on these recommendations, even when it takes me awhile. I'm glad I read this, in the unabridged version--1463 pages. The commentary and obiter dicta are worth the extra reading. I have a general affection for long classic novels, but usually Russian. This may be the first French novel I've read. Oddly, it doesn't make we want to read Hugo's other work. Usually I am obsessive about following up on "other writings."
This is a very Christian work--not in any overt sense, but in that conversion takes something striking, is not easy or suddenly complete, leads to a complete change of values and thought, and risks or requires complete honesty/self-abnegation/sacrifice. Instead of the easy Christian thought that Christ goes to the cross and dies FOR us, this conveys the harder Christian thought that Christ shows us how to go to the cross and die to what came before and live again a new life. This shows the worth of that harder thought. We are to become Christ--not ride the coattails of Christ.
When I first read War and Peace about 20 years ago I remember being moved to tears in parts. That did not happen when I reread it a couple years ago. I was moved to tears by the end of this book. It is odd that a story that we do not believe to have actually happened can move us to tears. But the concrete truths of the story line remain moving. It happens all the time, or it should happen--perhaps that is enough. Valjean's struggles to accept Marius and let Cosette go are very moving. Every parent has to do that--or should--in some way. This was more dramatic than most lives, but it captured that truth.