What We're Reading

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What We're Reading

A book on the origins of consciousness; a galloping account of the Lincoln assassination; a prime piece of crime noir; and memoirs about childrearing by Amy Chua and Andrew Ferguson.

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James Carman, Managing Editor: I’m reading two books at the moment. The first, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, is essentially a sequel to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, published in 1979. The book—like Gödel, which won the Pulitzer Prize—takes a stab at “saying what a self, a soul, an inner light, a first-person viewpoint, interiority, intentionality, and consciousness are.” I’ve read other people on this subject—Denis Dutton and John Searle among them—but Hofstadter has a knack for distilling the hard-to-express into pithy sentences. “In a nutshell,” he writes, “our quandary is this. Either we believe that our consciousness is something other than an outcome of physical law, or we believe it is an outcome of physical law—but making either choice leads us to disturbing, perhaps even unacceptable consequences.”

Because, as Hofstadter would heartily agree, we are all strange loops, my other bit of nightstand reading could not be more different: Keith Richards’ acclaimed, and often hilarious, memoir, Life. Richards (perhaps the result of way too much experimentation with mind-altering substances) writes in a rambling, allusive style that is hard to resist. Here’s one snippet, which gives a glimpse into the curious, wandering mind of a Glimmer Twin:
There was this certain “Don’t go there” with rock and roll, glossy photographs and silly suits. But it was just music to me. It was very hierarchical. It was mods and rockers time. There were clear-drawn lines between the “beats” who were addicted to the English version of Dixieland jazz (known as traditional) and those in R&B. I did cross the line for Linda Poitier, an outstanding beauty who wore a long black sweater, black stockings, and heavy eyeliner a la Juliete Greco. I put up with a lot of Acker Bilk—the trad jazzers’ pimp—just to watch her dance. There was another Linda, specs, skinny but beauty in the eyes, who I clumsily courted. A sweet kiss. Strange. Sometimes a kiss is burned into you far more than whatever comes later.
Megan Buskey, Assistant Editor: I recently blazed through Manhunt, James L. Swanson’s account of the Lincoln assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s mishap-ridden getaway through the backcountries of Virginia and Maryland. Swanson’s brisk book is true to the spirit of Booth’s doomed escape in at least one respect: it always seems to be on the move. Swanson also earns points for his muscular retelling of the scattered response of the government’s stunned leaders. Reading the book was the perfect way to freshen up before seeing Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (at a D.C. cinema just blocks away from where the real drama unfolded!) When New York Review Books republishes it in June, I’m also looking forward to diving into The Judges of the Secret Court, a 1961 novel by David Stacton that depicts the life of our country’s most notorious actor-turned-assassin. Fellow Civil War buffs will be happy to learn that we’ll be devoting the entire Current Books section of the summer WQ to books about the War Between the States.
Sarah L. Courteau, Literary Editor: I just finished Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Hammett is the original hard-boiled egg when it comes to gritty crime novels, and Red Harvest was published in 1929 after Hammett had honed his craft writing detective short stories and just a couple years before his best-known novel, The Maltese Falcon, was released. Red Harvest embodies the “trust no one” ethos that is crime noir. (The novel was the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo.) A detective who works for the Continental Detective Agency and is only known as “the Continental Op” arrives in a western mining town nicknamed Poisonville and discovers that the client who sent for him has been murdered. As he begins unraveling that crime, he encounters endemic corruption, enough double-crossing to hogtie an army, a cast of crazy-quilt-colorful murderers and bootleggers, and one very venal dame. The cynical Op always remains mysterious, a slinger of stylish one-liners with his own (occasionally fungible) code. I loved it.
Steven Lagerfeld, Editor: After all the storms surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her account of what she calls her Chinese-style approach to raising two uber-achiever daughters, I was surprised to find the book breezy, funny, and full of self-mockery.
It’s easy to denounce Chua’s methods—she famously called one disrespectful daughter “garbage” —but I think it’s the question she poses that’s the red hot poker for baby boomer critics: Do we demand enough of our children? You can’t get too far in parenting without discovering that if your children are going to grow up to be civilized, successful individuals you must do something that grates against every grain of your boomer soul: You must become the Oppressor. And then, for the rest of your life, you get to blame yourself for all of your children’s real or imagined shortcomings. So the boomers say, And she wants to know if we’re doing enough?
Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, is the perfect counterpoint to Tiger Mother. One day during their son’s junior year in high school, as Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson tells it, he and his wife suddenly realized they needed to do something about getting their son into college, since he obviously wasn’t going to lift a finger. The problem, the experts tell them, is they are starting about a decade late. Ferguson’s tale takes off from there as the bemused but determined dad drags his laconic son through the tortuous quest, offering incisive analyses of the financial aid and private admissions counseling rackets as well as the ideological wars over the SAT and other matters. Needless to say, there’s a happy ending. It’s all shrewd and much of it is hilarious—or, if like me you’re a veteran of this process, chillingly funny.
Both of these books leave out the influence of peer groups, good schools, and other things that help kids achieve, and both exaggerate their stories for effect (disclosure: Chua is a member of the WQ editorial board and I know her slightly). If you want your kids to perform in Carnegie Hall, as Chua did, you may have to push harder, and even if you don’t, there’s plenty of anxiety. But let’s maintain some perspective about what’s most important to us as a society. As international test comparisons show, the children in America’s upper realms are not the ones we need to worry about most.
Photo credit: ginnerobot, via flickr