Sabbatical Reading: Going to Joan’s Town

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This was my first book of Didion, and probably just as well that I started with Slouching. I am drawn to Didion’s work primarily because I see her as one of a chorus of Californian voices who have influenced American letters, and arguably for the better.

I find Didion has a permanent second-person detachment, the ability to be in a milieu without allowing herself – or being able – to be of it. She is the chameleon with the clear eye, who is able to blend in enough to get close to her subjects, but at the sme time never loses the detachment.

At some point, I almost wanted to shake her and ask “okay Joan, who are you and what do you care about?” Because, Lord knows, I looked, and all I found was the detachment, the curiosity, the wonder that borders on perpetually asking why? This makes for a damned good observer and a journalist. But Didion herself remains a cipher, at least here.

Perhaps this is why her later works, especially Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, are such important parts of her oeuvre. Maybe that’s where we find out if there is something more to Joan than her observations. There must be: the subtlety of her filter and the gentle way in which she chivvies us to her conclusions are hints at greater storms unseen.

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Sabbatical Reading: Talking About a Revolution

Finishing Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was a bit of a personal triumph for me, so bear with some short musings as catch my literary breath for a moment.

Despite a predilection for complex sentence structures and multi-page paragraphs, Burke is brilliant. At the very least, I walked away with an new appreciation of the French Revolution that contrasted with the neo-Jeffersonian interpretation of events.

Histories I had read emphasize the excesses of the Reign of Terror. Burke acknowledges and decries the atrocities but does not use them to weave a polemic. Instead he focuses on the fundamental shortcomings of the revolutionary government itself. He does not embark on the kind of ideological screed that fills political tracts today as much as he delivers a cogent practical critique of the revolution, and by extension all scorched-earth paroxysms of change. Progress is essential, Burke emphasizes, but change is not the same as progress. and while for true progress to take place there must be change, that change must be modest and incremental.

The phrase that hung above my head as I watched Burke dissect the National Assembly was “consequences unintended, unforeseen but not unforeseeable.” No doubt I will return to his work in the future, but other exponents of the matured values upon which Burke expounded, like Russell Kirk, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Irving Babbit, now call for my attention.

A final note: I find it fascinating that Burke, who stands at the center of the Anglo-American conservative pantheon, sounds less like a right-wing icon than he does a moderate conservative, and someone who might well be dubbed a RINO.

Sabbatical Reading: Train Training

Two things I have learned about traveling by train: a) passenger rail is different in every country; and b) traveling comfortably on a train is an art form.

I have never taken an overnight trip on Amtrak, but I have five nights entrained in the coming month, so I want to hack this ahead of time.

Jim Loomis is THE man when it comes to North American rail travel, and this quick but very thorough read was an immeasurable help in me getting ready for my train-ing.

Sabbatical: D-Minus 12 – Reading List

This looks like the final stack, with a few more in the Kindle:

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
  • The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
  • Death by Pastrami by Leonard Bernstein
  • God in Search of Man: A Philosophy  of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Can’t wait to begin.

Reading: The Character of the General

Washington was a human being, and the cherry tree story was a myth. But behind the myths lies a man of profound character.

I am not sure I could or should emulate Washington in detail, but his character provides an outline, a rough template, that offers a lot to emulate.

The more time that passes since reading the book, though, the more I find that its examination of Washington, his life, and his character moves me. By bringing the General down from his marble pedestal, Ron Chernow has done us all a great service: he has shown us that greatness is less bestowed than it is found, less innate than it is built. It is a mantle that is not assumed: it is rather, conferred by others after long and careful evaluation.

And, perhaps most important, if the great are imperfect, then it is within the grasp of all who are imperfect to be great. The lesson Chernow teaches us, then, is that the Founding Fathers did more than democratize power: they democratized prestige, importance, and social standing, stealing it from the privileged, the noble-born, and the royal and setting it in the town square for anyone to earn.

Verily, we need to look no further than Washington’s forty-fourth successor to witness that there is a downside to the democratization of prestige. Yet one does not have to look for long to find among the heirs of George III evidence that hereditary monarchy is little better – and arguably worse – at selecting heads of state than our own system.

But if there is a failing in our system, it begins with us. In a democracy it is we who choose the great. Our failing is in holding the good men and women who would hold office to a standard even George Washington could not match, leaving us only with Potemkin heroes and abject scoundrels from which to choose our leaders.

Chernow’s lesson is, thus, most important when understood in this context. Do not demand or expect perfection from your leaders. Demand an expect only that they are good and trying to be better. Such was George Washington, and, I daresay, such was the lot of every man and woman who we today revere as Great Americans.