Friday, August 03, 2007

What I'm reading, an irregular series ...

As you can tell, I am dodging work for a couple of hours this afternoon and idly posting ... I have my UN manuscript to complete (it is very far along, I'm delighted to say, although less sure about its readability), and a Simpsons Movie review for the TLS to complete. In theory, writing the Simpsons review should be a break from the harder work of writing the UN manuscript, but unfortunately, as my Simpsons review has - gulp, ultimate sin of a review of a summer comedy - got somewhat serious, it has got harder to finish. But here's what I am reading these days:

The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror, by Stephen Holmes. I finished this a few days ago, then read Peter Berkowitz's review in Policy Review, here, "Vulgarizing the War Debate."

If anything, I think Peter is too nice about this book. In an earlier post on this blog, I remarked on my experience over the last year and a half of being a panelist at academic conferences in which the principal and largely unchallenged assumption was that terrorism was not really the issue, an overblown American response was; terrorism, according to one academic panelist, in a phrase I have made my own (by way of dispute, however), is merely a "second order" problem. Marty Lederman, in a comment on that post, said that he hangs out with a lot of critics of the administration but has never heard such sentiments. Well, perhaps we mean different things by such labels - but a couple of further commentators to that post weighed in with several examples of "terrorism is a second order problem" thinking. One is the recent (late 2006) Foreign Affairs article by political scientist John Mueller,"Is there still a terrorist threat?" and answering no. Indeed, answering that there never really was one as such, it was all overblown and mostly imagined.

To this canon we must add Professor Holmes' Matador's Cape. Let me be honest, I've never been a fan of Holmes's work - yes, of course, leading political theorist, all that, but the hatchet job he did in his 1993 The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism on thinkers ranging from Christopher Lasch to Roberto Unger was so egregious that I've never been able to take him seriously again. All wit, all the time; serious, accurate readings of his targets, something else again.

(It was also Peter Berkowitz, by the way, who most precisely and comprehensively revealed the level of selective quotation, contrived misreadings of key texts, etc., that made up the 1993 book, here - something that I don't suppose improved Peter's tenure prospects in Harvard's government department - although Peter liked somewhat more Holmes' later Passions and Constraints (1995), here. However, the one who had the most reason to be angered by the misreadings was, for my money, Unger who, however, has long tended to take such attacks in stride.)

My objections to the Matador book are essentially a somewhat more indignant version of Peter's. Holmes switches arguments as it suits him, depending on the target, with little attention to the intellectual inconsistencies - and worse, inconsistencies implied for actual policy - and an insouciant attitude that the real issue is not out there, it is in here; the issue is not terrorism, it is (the excesses of, the inherent illiberalism of) counterterrorism.

Capital Ideas Evolving, by Peter L. Bernstein. A decade ago I reviewed Bernstein's superb Against the Gods: The story of risk in the TLS, here. But Bernstein, that rare combination of a scholar-writer-practical investment banker (the one other outstanding example I can think of is James MacDonald, author of the wonderful A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy), had actually begun his writing on finance theory and history with a 1970s book on the new financial theories entering the capital markets - the theories of efficient markets, options pricing models, etc. This new book offers a new perspective on those theories and their successors, both as an intellectual matter and a practical matter in the markets. I have just started it, and am greatly enjoying it. Students - but not just students, by any means - I think, would get a great deal from this book. One of my criticisms of how economics is taught is not just its widely commented abstraction - the number of law students I teach who have had multiple classes in undergraduate economics where they drew many supply-demand curves but have not the faintest idea what any of it means in the real world, well, they are legion - but also its determined ahistoricism. To conceive of economics as having a genuine intellectual history is, apparently, to deprive it of claims to Truth and Science (analytic philosophy long had precisely such an attitude toward intellectual history). More when ... I have actually read the book.

Model Behavior, by Jay McInerney. A well known and justly very well regarded international law professor - which is to say, a serious intellectual who is the real deal, even when, as is frequently the case, we disagree - dropped me a note to say that he had read a book I had commented on earlier, AA Gill's Starcrossed, and rather enjoyed it. Hooray! But I'll let him remain nameless because my wife started into the book, and told me that I could talk all I wanted about Gill's take on Antigone and his infectious enthusiasm for poetry, about the book's wry insight into the nature of celebrity, fame, and money - at the end of the day this book was just another in the genre of male fantasy novels about models-actresses who take up relationships with men for whom in real life one can't possibly imagine it happening. Chick lit for guys, I think she put it. Well. Errr. Hmm. Surely not. Couldn't possibly be.

There being no good response to that, at least by a middle aged academic who can't afford a midlife crisis, let me instead offer another in the "chick lit for guys" category - Model Behavior by that now-out-of-fashion bad boy of lit, Jay McInerney. I found it by complete accident - our home bookshelves are crowded with books that somehow arrived, wound up there, drifted in with the spring pollen, somehow took up residence, even though I've never read or even noticed them. This was one of them - I noticed it while we were eating picnic style in front of a video a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea what it was. It's okay but not great; I read it all the way through mostly to find out if "they" got back together. And when that's the reason you're reading a novel - what did Jean-Marie call it? Chick lit for guys? Never.

Airplane reading on the long flights to and from Chile: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Book of the Dead, being the latest in the Special Agent Pendergrast series, and Lee Child, Bad Luck and Trouble, being the latest Jack Reacher novel. There are others, but I'll only embarrass myself further.

(There are two authors who require separate, serious discussions. One is Tod Lindberg and his new The Political Teachings of Jesus, and the other is Francisco Goldman, his new nonfiction account of the murder of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, but also his whole fiction canon. They are both old and dear friends.)