Another three months between posts, huh? I won’t bore you with my recent reading slump. I know I’m not the only one struggling to find attention for books these days. My reading, such as it is, mostly alternates between “Homework for These Times” books and “Forget Reality!” books. I keep checking out general/literary fiction from the library and returning it not just unread but unopened. I’ve had the most luck with mystery (the plot keeps me going), non-fiction (I think I crave understanding more than escape), and short books (not enough pages for inertia to set in)–from A Sensible Wife by Jessica Hart, a favorite Harlequin author, to Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn to Sara Barmak’s quirky Closer, on the science and culture of female orgasm.
Here are two recent, unrelated reads I especially enjoyed:
Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?
This one was Homework, obviously, and also short (100pp). It’s a theoretically-informed, well-end-noted work by a scholar, but it originated in a series of lectures, making it pretty conversational and accessible. Müller identifies the defining characteristics of populism not as an “attitude” (anger, resentment) or a set of policies, but as anti-pluralism and exclusion. Only some people are “the people.” That’s why populism is a threat to democracy. (And why he sees Trump, but not Sanders, as a populist).
Because democracy does an imperfect job of representing people, it’s always threatened by populism, its shadow side. Populism, Müller argues, can show us what or whom democracy is failing to represent (as we saw with the Rust Belt Trump voters of 2016), but that doesn’t mean that it is a useful corrective to these failures, because populists exclude some people and ideas; they refuse to recognize opposing groups/views as legitimate contenders in democracy. It is also, he points out, not “more democratic” to claim you represent a silent majority against elites who are, after all, the representatives (however imperfect) the people have elected.
I found the whole book helpful, but especially Müller’s arguments about what to do about populism. “I reject,” he writes, “the paternalistic attitude that effectively prescribes therapy for citizens ‘whose fears and anger have to be taken seriously,'” a line which was refreshing after all the hand-wringing about the feelings of Trump voters. We should not, in our turn, exclude them but we can’t accept their anti-pluralism. We should take populists’ concerns seriously and debate their policy ideas–talk with populists, he says, not like them. This is not a quick solution, but it chimes with the pieces on “how our country finally beat a populist leader” that were making the rounds after the election.
Francis Spufford, Golden Hill
This historical novel took me forever to get through, but that’s all me, not the book. It hooked me from its first bravura sentence (190 words, 6 em-dashes), in which a mysterious, aptly-named “Mr. Smith” arrives in 1746 New York with a bill for £1000 pounds to redeem. Who is Mr. Smith? Is the bill real? What’s he going to do with all that money? Right away, Spufford evokes a world different from our own, where money can’t be easily moved or identity easily proved.
In an author’s note, Spufford describes his novel as a kind of “colonial counterpart of Joseph Andrews or David Simple,” and I think it offers both the pleasures and (for me) the frustrations of its 18th-century forbears. Reviews often describe it as “picaresque,” and though the plot does eventually build to a climax (which is worth going into unspoiled), a lot of the narrative feels episodic. These episodes, though, are vividly realized, gripping and often moving. Spufford’s descriptions are marvelous; here’s a favorite, where Smith is in church:
The congregation dropped to its knees, and consequently out of sight of itself [in the high box pews]. Smith was all of a sudden alone, with nothing in view but the rectangular top of his separate box, and above it the church roof and the vacant pulpit: a most effective architectural similitude of the individual soul’s necessarily separate and lonely address to the mercy seat. From all the separate souls, in their separate boxes, lidless before the Lord, arose the grumbling, lisping, rumbling, droning, hoarse, melodious, piping, muttering, murmuring, whispering, bellowing voice of the congregation together, making its way through the utterly familiar words of the Prayer Book’s General Confession, at once soothing and demanding, ignorable and liable from moment to moment to sink a hook into the soul where least expected. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and there is no health in us . . . Whenever an individual lost their place in the flow of the words, lost their attention or paid too much attention, they heard the flow continue over their heads, a roof of sound beneath the roof of wood, made from the voices of the many separate souls combined, but apart from each, and asking no questions when the faltering voice was raised again to rejoin it.
It’s a clever passage, hinting at all kinds of ideas about individualism and faith and guilt; it puts a picture (and the sound) of the church in my mind; it captures something real about my own experience of reciting familiar prayers in corporate worship. If you like this passage, read the book. If you recoil–well, don’t.
This is a book bursting with ideas, and life, and action. Spufford is thinking about the fluidity of identity, about the possibility of remaking oneself in the New World and the risk or threat that is for both the newcomer and the community he enters, about liberty of many kinds, about the bonds of family and duty. The downside is that the people don’t feel entirely developed or convincing; they are actors serving the ideas, playing a role Spufford needs them to play. I think in the case of Smith, especially, that’s deliberate–he is passive, waiting for his bill to come due so he can fulfill his mission. But it’s true of other characters as well, and made the novel less than completely satisfying. It was still great, thought-provoking fun, though, and I’m glad I managed to read it.
Whew! I hope it won’t be three months before I post, or finish a book, again. . . .