Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group of China-watching politicos to read both classic Marxist texts and historical studies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
My annual list of books arrives a bit later than usual. However, this delay is in some ways fortunate. Now my list will not be seen as an extended comment on the Lex Friedman reading list discourse. Those not on Twitter will have heard little about this. I envy you: we would all be better off if none of us had seen Friedman tweet out a proposed list of books to read in 2023—some as simple as The Little Prince, others as long and complex as Brothers Karazamov—and the avalanche of snobbery that followed. The entire brouhaha strikes me as a strange upper middle class status game. It seems that an attachment to books normally assigned in 10th grade English is the literary equivalent of glitter mascara or an overcooked steak. All three belong on that select list of items the commentariat can gleefully make fun without fear of “being the asshole.”
Or Comments on the Thiel Thesis, Part I
Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.
Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:
Readers may remember my stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the “East Asian” section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?
What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:
A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:
Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded.. As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.
One hopes for statesmen chastened by defeat. In this world of our hopes, the authors of catastrophe would discuss their mistakes with the humility, introspection, and sense of disgrace these mistakes deserve. Decisions that led to death—death in its thousands and hundreds of thousands—would be examined with probing honesty. The decision makers behind them would be seized with a fierce guilt and urgency. They would quest to understand the nature of their errors. They would incessantly press upon us the lessons of experience, gripped with fear that the next generation might repeat their calamities.
One can imagine such a statesman, chastened by defeat. Douglas Feith is not he.
The most popular thing I published last year was the essay “On Cultures That Build.” In that essay I argued that “in the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not ‘how do we make that happen?’ but ‘how do we get management to take our side?’ This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that ‘builds.’”θ
In this week’s edition of City Journal I have a follow up of a sort to that essay. I begin this new essay with what might seem like an entirely unrelated question: why is speculative “Young Adult” fiction the most popular genre of 21st century America?
Several years ago I had the chance to lead two seminars with a group of high-performing Chinese high school seniors. Each seminar had between 20-35 kids; each of these students was a graduating senior enrolled in the international department of a prestigious high school in Beijing. The purpose of these seminars was twofold.
William Osler, teaching at the bedside. Understanding changing perceptions of “great works”— what books are included in a canon at a given moment in history, why certain works make the cut while others fall to the wayside, and tracking down the individuals responsible for these decisions—is a hobby of mine. I have written about it […]