Books

The Measure of All Things

How markets beat out citizenship to define our public life

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, liberals were dismayed by the economic carnage but could at least rejoice that the dominant ideology of free markets had been exposed as fiction. The deepest vulnerabilities of unregulated capitalism had been cast into sharp relief; the groundwork was now in place for a return to robust regulation of the financial sector and a broader shift to the left.

Camelot’s Begetter

Besides being the father of John, Bobby, and Teddy, Joe Kennedy left behind a tattered legacy. 

(AP Photo)

Even those smitten by the Camelot legend have never mustered much love for Joseph P. Kennedy. Upstart Boston Irish millionaire, early player in the movie industry, then the Securities and Exchange Commission’s founding chair under Franklin D. Roosevelt, he brought his public career to a banana-peel close by serving as our disastrous ambassador to Great Britain back when World War II’s clouds were eyeing their rainmakers. He might be a footnote today if he hadn’t fathered all those damned kids.

The Best of David Foster Wallace

When the novelist learned to escape his own mind, he got a little closer to the greatness he sought.

(Flickr/Courtesy of the Lannan Foundation)

May 2005, Kenyon College, Ohio. David Foster Wallace steps to the podium and looks out at the graduating seniors before him. He tugs at his academic robe and bends toward the microphone, hair falling onto his face. Sweat beads and drips over his body. “If anybody feels like perspiring,” Wallace says, “I’d invite you to go ahead, ’cause I’m sure goin’ to.” He reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief and begins to relate the first of several parables: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Want Less Inequality? Tax It

Revive the big idea of British economist Arthur C. Pigou! And apply it to America's most outrageous problem.

Courtesy of the Ramsey and Muspratt Collection

For the last two decades of his life, Arthur Cecil Pigou didn’t get much respect. Once considered Britain’s leading economist, he had come under caustic attack from a colleague at Cambridge—his friend and famous protégé John Maynard Keynes—for insisting that the Great Depression would correct itself without strong government intervention. By the mid-1940s, before Keynes died, Pigou had capitulated. But the dispute between the two, and Pigou’s eventual acknowledgment that Keynes might have a point, seemed to consign his own work to the dustbin. His student Harry Johnson remembers him as “a tall, straight figure, eccentrically garbed, glimpsed occasionally walking about the countryside.” In the hall where Pigou lectured on economic principles, one unknown undergraduate had carved into a desk “Pigou mumbles.”

My Favorite Martian

(AP Photo/Katy Winn)

Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny way back in 1951 and later gifted heartland America with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, among other pop-culture landmarks, has just come out with a new novel at the preposterous—not to say preposterously entertaining—age of 97. The Lawgiver, it's called, and I seriously doubt book critics will decide this is their chance to take Wouk to the woodshed. Frankly, none of us wants to learn our withering review was the one clutched in his hand when ... well, you get the picture.

Nate Silver, Artist of Uncertainty

(Flickr/Randy Stewart)

We’re heading into the last week of a tight presidential campaign, and polls are coming in too fast to count. Partisans everywhere are desperate for omens. But at moments like these, it’s people who care most intensely that the “right outcome” occur who run a high risk of getting it wrong—picking out positive polls for comfort, or panicking over an unusual and unexpected result they don’t like.

Fortunately, our most prominent number cruncher has been giving us the straight story instead of capitalizing on this anxiety. In 2008, Nate Silver correctly predicted the results of all 35 Senate races and the presidential results in 49 out of 50 states. Since then, his website, fivethirtyeight.com (now central to The New York Times’s political coverage), has become an essential source of rigorous, objective analysis of voter surveys to predict the Electoral College outcome of presidential campaigns.

The Great Conservative “No!”

William F. Buckley’s heirs are starving on a red-meat diet.  

(Associated Press)

In the ’80s and ’90s, the GOP basked in an atypical rep as “the party of ideas.” Thanks to the liberal project’s distinctly dilapidated charms once Jimmy Carter got done playing the concerned mortician, the rise of deep-pocketed think tanks and often sharp-witted neocon intellectuals—and, not least, Newt Gingrich’s endlessly self-fertilizing conception of himself as a brainiac—it wasn’t even undeserved. Revealingly, though, all that froufrou stayed disconnected from the party’s popular appeal. Unlike midcentury Democrats, for whom Adlai Stevenson’s intellectualism and the New Frontier’s Harvard pedigree were pluses, the Republican base never did develop much of a taste for white meat disguised as gray matter, preferring Gingrich the hyper--partisan to Gingrich the guru every time.

Way Down in the Hole

Every era has its great narrative art form, stories delivered via the au courant medium that simultaneously show us the small characters of individuals and the vast social panoramas that limn their decisions and lives. The Anglo-Saxons and ancient Greeks had epic poetry, its tropes, rhythms, and assonances perfect for delivery via roving troubador or bard. Urban Greeks and Elizabethans saw the peaks of their cultures’ theatrical drama, where everyone from the aristocracy to the masses gathered for social and moral insight peppered with bawdy jokes. Nineteenth-century England had its sweeping novels, ranging from Austen to ; the 1970s gave us Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Nashville, and their kin.

What's Up With Naomi Wolf's Vagina?

Relax, folks. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Naomi Wolf's Vagina, carnal or otherwise. Everything I know about it comes from what other people have told me. And let me tell you, am I ever grateful for those reviews, which tell me I never want to put my hands on it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the entire public purpose of Naomi Wolf, at this point in her brilliant career, is to be the target of other folks’ smart sentences.

The Vagina Myth

Naomi Wolf's yoni worship isn't just silly—it's dangerous.

This summer, Michigan state representative Lisa Brown was banned from the House floor when she dared to say the word “vagina” in a debate about proposed restrictions on abortion. Just three weeks ago, Todd Akin revealed what many Republicans believe: If you get pregnant, it can’t have been rape. It’s been a year of politicians trying to force women to have medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and “personhood amendments” granting one-celled organisms more rights than women, as long as the cell resides in the woman’s uterus. If there ever were a cultural moment crying out for an impassioned defense of the vagina, it would be now. It’s beyond unfortunate, then, that Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A Biography is such a failure.

Ghosts of Ballots Past

On Rick Hasen's riveting look at voting wars since Florida—and the anguished history of how we got there in the first place

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting.” —Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

Voting rights are in the news again, and they’re back as a national issue. In Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and several other states, the coming election showdown on November 6 has been shadowed by a rising concern among Democrats over voter-ID requirements, restrictions on vote canvassing, and changes to early voting. How many of those worrying this year know that it was a series of late-19th-century political battles that helped decide how we cast and count our ballots? Or that this strange, only dimly remembered history leads straight to the mess we’re in today?

No Touchdown for Paterno Biography

When news broke in November 2011 that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was about to be indicted for 52 counts of sexually assaulting children, Joe Posnanski—perhaps the most celebrated sportswriter in America—happened to be at State College in Pennsylvania working on a biography of Sandusky's former boss, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

The Long Arc of Gore Vidal

The prolific man of letters spent the last decades of his life tarnishing his own reputation—but what a reputation it was.

(AP Photo)

With typical cheek, Gore Vidal, who died yesterday, once reviewed a book about himself by a young academic named Ray Lewis White. This was in 1968, when “in many quarters,” reviewer-Vidal explained, author-Vidal was “still regarded with profound suspicion,” making White’s study a bit of an outlier. Expressing gratitude for what he deemed “a most interesting book” wouldn’t have suited Vidal’s act, to put it mildly. But he came close in his summing-up: “[I]n the declining kingdom of literature,” he wrote, “Mr. White has staked out with some nicety the wild marches of a border lord.”

Friday Poetry Break: When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer

From Walt Whitman

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;         5Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

 

(With thanks to Kevin Franck for the suggestion!)

The London Games

A new book sheds light on the ruins that always lie in an Olympics's wake. 

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics,  by Iain Sinclair, Faber and Faber, 405 pages, $30.00

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