Lightning Rods
October 2011

¶ We don’t share Daniel Engber’s skepticism (“The Effect Effect”) about the utility of buying and reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but we see his point. (Slate; via Arts Journal; 10/27)

More effects crop up in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (2008), in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (2009), in Malcolm Gladwell’s books, in pieces about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, in Slate, in Slate, and in Slate. The same catchphrases even recur from one best-seller to the next, emerging in different contexts, slightly altered or not at all, like a thinking man’s LOLcats. If these ideas are good and useful—as many of Kahneman’s seem to be—then everybody wins. But how would you know for sure?

¶ A long but very engaging essay by Kate Bolick, “All the Single Ladies,” begins with the difficulty of finding a marriageable mate at age 39 and winds up at the Begijnhof in Amsterdam, where at least one resident spends the odd night at her boyfriend’s flat. Bolick covers a great deal of ground, but most of it is still awash in confusion about freedom and satisfaction. The only clear thing: if you don’t marry into a family, you must assemble one. (Atlantic; 10/13) ¶ We can’t help feeling that Alex Balk would be a much happier guy if he would just go and watch Almost Famous or Fool’s Gold; maybe then he could keep track of what Jeff Madrick has to say. (The Awl; 10/19)

¶ Paula Marantz Cohen is not impressed by the Jacqueline Kennedy who emerges from the interviews that she recorded with Arthur Schlesinger Jr in early 1964. “ I heard only the flat, smug tones of a woman of privilege who was something of a mean girl. Her relentless focus on herself and how people treated her and her family make her seem, for all her style and taste, rather vulgar.”  (Smart Set; 10/6) ¶ Jenny Diski has a look at Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. Ordinarily, we take a very dim view of extravagantly negative book reviews, but — first of all, not everything that’s printed between covers is a genuine book; and, second, it’s a  “Diary” entry, not a review. Most of all, though, we hopelessly indulge Jenny Diski, self-described “miserabilist.” (Does Diski know Anna Russell’s great spoof, “Miserable“? I hope so!)

Previously happiness has been understood to be a matter of happenstance – most of the words for ‘happy’ in European languages originally meant ‘lucky’. Now it’s a project. Probably has been since it was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the bit about securing the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through the means of an elected government was overlooked in favour of an individualist reading. More recently, goodness in the world started to be measured by value for money and achieved targets. It starts with a five-year plan and gradually, via the defeat of universal education and social welfare, it becomes the happiness project. You fill in grids, put crosses in boxes, look for four truths and follow 12 commandments and you will get that indefinable something that you don’t have but which you know you are entitled to. Rubin, I learn, was raised in Kansas City. She’s not in Kansas any more, she lives in New York, but I think that, unlike Dorothy, she got stuck in Oz.

¶ A propos Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, Jen Paton, who has enjoyed four internships herself, writes about the problematics of working for free. Oor worse, paying to work, as at the outfit known as the Universe of Dreams. (3 Quarks Daily; 10/6) ¶ Scott Timberg may be overstating the case with his headline, “The Creative Class Is A Lie,” but “the dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset” has certainly crippled the market for creative-class products. (Slate; via MetaFilter; 10/11) ¶ At The Baseline Scenario, James Kwak tips us to Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind,  which, among other things,  emphasises the role of victimhood (often vicarious, as witness Edmund Burke’s for Marie Antoinette) in the conservative make-up. (The Baseline Scenario; 10/6) ¶ Why “market reports” are worse than useless. (Felix Salmon; 10/11) ¶ Robert Shiller writes about “winter work,” and the “balanced-budget multiplier.”  We wonder when Occupy Wall Street is going to adopt the Yale professor as their patron saint. (New York Times; (10/20)

¶ Alex Tabarrock points to The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan’s ten year-old treatise on the imperatives of responsible voting. What brings this up now is not clear, but it’s new to us, so we’re glad to have the link. At his blog, The Art of Theory, Brennan presses some interesting “disanalogies” between elections and markets. (10/19) ¶ At the Jerusalem Post, David Nisman sums up the adroit statesmanship of Turkey’s Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan. (via Real Clear World; 10/11)

What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Turkey has staked its claim as the gate-keeper to the Middle East, abandoning indefinitely any aspiration to be a part of Europe. Instead of acting as a subservient nation begging to join the European Union, Erdogan has used his new foreign policy to send a message to the world: Turkey is a strong, Muslim, Middle Eastern nation, which now has the final word on any and all action taking place within its realm.

¶ The awful truth about Helen DeWitt’s amazing Lightning Rods — it has been lying around, unpublished, for over a decade. (Bookforum; via paperpools) Another, even more lively interview at BoingBoing; toward the end, DeWitt outlines the books in her hopper. (10/11) To Jenny Davidson, at The Awl, DeWitt observes that “selling was always bound up with some kind of theory of human nature….  (I thought you were just buying a place to live.)” (10/19) At The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg’s super review of Lightning Rods distinguishes typical satire from the superior strain that DeWitt works. Sentence we wish we’d written: “Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom.” Although we’d have said loquacious instead of eloquent. (10/26) ¶ And, finally (at least for this entry), the n+1 treatment, which is almost deranged but none the less entertaining for that. “Coming back to America always feels like defeat, I hate to say it. I don’t like living here—it feels like being trapped. If I could somehow make money out of being a writer it would be great, because I could just live in Europe and not come back.” (10/31)

¶ Alexander Nazaryan explains why the narcissism of big-boy American fiction puts our novelists out of the running for the Nobel Prize. He hails Joseph O’Neill and Dave Eggers by the way; he omits Jennifer Egan. (Salon; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Why Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk is not a well-liked writer in Turkey, and especially not in Istanbul. (Fıkır Mahsulleri Ofisi; via The Morning News; 10/11)

The publicity put books like The Black Book into homes where no other writer than Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie had entered before. Many who bought Pamuk’s books had never read anything ‘serious’ – I am talking about writers like Tolstoy, Kafka, Camus, whatever; let alone the unfamiliar (and sometimes more intellectually demanding) postmodern stuff. Just as they would not have liked Tolstoy had they tried to read him, they did not like Pamuk either.

¶ Matthew Galloway finds the lightning-bolt homosexual relationship in Chad Harbach’s ambitious new novel, The Art of Fielding, to be, well, unconvincing. (The Millions) ¶ Fredric James’s review of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, newly translated by Naomi Lebowitz, makes this novel, written by a Danish Nobel Prize winner who died in 1943, sound both interesting and deep (and important, too), but the £44 tariff is a bit steep. The Danish original can be had for a song. (LRB; via 3 Quarks Daily; 10/13)

¶ At The Rumpus, an excellent interview with critic Laura Miller. Lamentable observation: (10/31)

Will this reader understand a reference to Edmund Spenser? Some won’t. It’s particularly important to keep this in mind with American readers because they tend to get angry when they don’t understand references, which is unfortunate, but once you’ve put someone’s back up by indicating that you know something they don’t, they tend to be unreceptive to whatever else you’ve got to say. And to be fair to those readers, some critics really are just interested in showing off.

¶ Jim Emerson is crazy about all the red in Drive. Then he snacks on it.  (Scanners) And while we’re on the subject, somebody at The Awl unearthed a breathless but impossibly long description (that we dare you to stop reading) of what happens in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie. (Crushing Death Blow) At HTMLGiant, A D Jameson, who is so tired of guy films that he would limit the next century to “gay Puerto Rican women” directors, makes a big exception for Drive, listen ten reasons why it’s great.  ¶ Anne Helen Petersen explains why Brad Pitt is a big movie star; then she explains why he’s also an interesting one. “Someone who goes through life with that ease exists.  Or at least that’s the promise that “playing oneself” makes.  It’s a beautiful illusion to watch — and it’s the reason the film [Moneyball], no matter its merits, will make money, and why Pitt receives the paychecks he does.” (Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style; via The Browser) ¶ Helen Mirren talks about building hospitals. (The Talks; via The Morning News; 10/13) ¶ At The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard take on the challenge of making Stanley Kubrick’s eye-candylicious Barry Lyndon seem compelling, and they succeed. They even demonstrate Ryan O’Neal’s rightness for the role. (10/26)

¶ Mitsuko Uchida explains the meaning of the three languages in her life: she thinks (and loves) in English. Also: success as a musician will come if “your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself.” (FT; via Arts Journal; 10/19)  (Thanks, Susan!)

Have a Look: ¶ The artist’s rendering of a General Motors research facility in 1950s Michigan so closely resembles bird’s-eye views of the great baroque palaces of the Age of Absolutism that I feel doubly convinced that the courtly life of the ancien régime did not wither in the Nineteenth Century, but rather moved into the boardroom. (Brainiac; 10/6) ¶ What Occupy Wall Street protesters want, and how to get them. (GOOD) ¶ Andrew Zuckerman’s Wisdom interviews — four books of insight by (it seems to me) handsome and fortunate people — is the first of seven interview anthologies curated by the tireless Maria Popova, at Brain Pickings. Oh, and we forgot to say old — handsome, fortunate old people. Gives us a feeling of hope! (10/11) ¶ Dave Maier struggles valiantly with “The Paradox of (Some) Conceptual Art,” but we’re afraid that he’s bested by his own cleverski. “Conceptual art” is no more art than a woman in a wedding dress waiting tables is a bride. “A rose by any other name…” (3 Quarks Daily; 10/31)

¶ Scanwiches. Yum! (Good) ¶ Anyone interested in fashion will have to accept that the Seventies weren’t so bad after all, not at any rate in Pascaline Chavanne’s astute reconstruction in last year’s Potiche, soon to appear on DVD. (Clothes on Film) ¶ Pedestrian crossing signals from around the world. (Spiegel; via MetaFilter; 10/13) ¶ Art/Not Art: A Test, at MondoBloggo. (10/20) ¶ Eli, no! @ Brain Pickings. ¶ John Snyder, a sound young newlywed (and Hotchkiss alum, apparently), took his wife, Nelle, on a honeymoon to Europe. They sailed home on the RMS Titanic. Ten days after the sinking, Snyder wrote to his father from Minneapolis. (Letters of Note) ¶ Feminist Ryan Gosling (via The Morning News; 10/24)

Noted: ¶ Joshua Brown supports Occupy Wall Street; read why. (The Reformed Broker; 10/19)  Ditto Justin E H Smith. (10/20) ¶ We are all Manchurian Candidates, suggests Jonah Lehrer (Frontal Cortex; 10/20) ¶ Who’s making reggianono parmigiano? Men in turbans. (MySinChew; via The Morning News; 10/27)

¶ Ted Wilson’s (red) suit. (The Rumpus; 10/26) ¶ “[N]eurasthenic seismographs.” (Slate; 10/27)

¶ Matt Taibbi on Rick Perry, the “human price tag” (Rolling Stone; via The Browser) ¶ Samhita Mukhopadhyay on MWLSE. (GOOD; 10/31)