Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Second Assumption

James L. Kugel, in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, asserts that Biblical interpretation was based on four assumptions. These four assumptions guided the interpretation of the Bible from at least the later writings in the Old Testament, until the development of the "higher criticism" in the 19th century. Fundamentalism, as a movement, has sought to restore these assumptions to their dominant position in Biblical interpretation. The first assumption, of which I wrote last month, was "that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B." In this essay, I wish to move on to the second assumption.

As Kugel states it: "Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do: be obedient to God just as Abraham was and you will be rewarded, just as he was."

The Iliad and the Odyssey, along with Hesiod's Theogony, were sacred texts to the ancient Greeks. They, like the myths and legends of many other peoples, are no longer considered sacred. Much of the reason for this is that we no longer make this particular assumption about them; we no longer take the Iliad to contain instruction relevant to us in our day. Therefore, we don't read it for instruction, which means that we can only read it for entertainment. Remove the assumption that a book provides instruction, and it becomes a mere tale of adventure. Take away the assumption that the Norse myths contain valuable instruction, and Thor becomes a comic-book character.

When the interpreters assume that the Bible is a book of instructions for living, this is not merely to say that they accept Biblical law as enunciated in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as applicable in their own time. Taking the injunction not to murder as applicable for all time is easy. More interesting is the manner in which later interpreters accept various prophecies and stories as applying to their own time. Matthew, for example, is at great pains to relate the story of Jesus' birth to earlier prophecies. He ties the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents to a verse in Jeremiah written six hundred years earlier.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious,
and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were
two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the
Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.

The text from Jeremiah 31 is part of a long passage predicting that the exile in Babylon will eventually end, and that the people will one day be restored to the land of Israel and Judah. There is no indication in the text that this prophecy extends beyond the immediate future, or relates to anything other than the Babylonian exile. Yet Matthew readily assumed that Jeremiah's words were applicable to the events of his own time.

In the passage I quoted earlier, Kugel stated that the Bible "is not fundamentally history." This is an interesting point, and one of the key points of dispute between traditional interpretations of the Bible, and the newer critical approaches - literary criticism, or "higher" criticism - based on German scholarship. One of the few rules I remember from my only formal religion class (a college class on the Synoptic Gospels), is this: When there is a reason for saying something, other than its truth, one must question its truth. In other words, a statement made merely because the speaker witnessed an interesting event, or is reporting what happened in his time, gives us no immediate reason to doubt its veracity. But a statement which proves a point, which supports an argument, or which has any other motivation other than mere truth, gives rise to questions.

One of my favorite examples of the manner in which Biblical stories which appear, from the text, to carry one meaning, have been interpreted in order to give instruction to us in our days, is the story of Onan. See Genesis 38:6-10.

Thus, the assumption that the Bible is a book of instruction also leads us to the realization that the interpreters, the editors, the collators of the Bible, from whoever compiled the Torah, or Books of Moses, to the Christian councils that promulgated an authoritative Biblical Canon, read the Bible selectively. They selected the stories that fitted into an instructional scheme, and they interpreted stories in accordance with their didactic purposes. That is, if a story conflicted with the message that an editor wanted publicized, perhaps that story didn't make the final cut, or was modified in some way in order to suit the purpose.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Knight's Reading List XVIII: June 2008

Reading List:

Bear, Greg. Eon.
Berton, Pierre. The Last Spike.
Catullus. Catullus.
Coben, Harlan. The Woods.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Kanon, Joseph. The Good German.
Orlean, Susan, editor. The Best American Essays 2005.
Stewart, Mary. The Hollow Hills.


Berton, Pierre. The Last Spike. 1971. xv + 566 pages.

See Reading List XVII: May 2008 for a description of the first volume of this set. The Last Spike takes the story of the Canadian Pacific Railway up to the completion of the road. It’s a good story, and well worth reading. One thing these two books make clear is that the shape of modern Canadian geography, particularly where the cities of the West are located, was largely determined by the men who laid out the route for the CPR.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Modern Library, 1993. Originally published 1961. xxiv + 598 pages. Index.

This is an amazing book. I read a review of it in Newsweek when it was first published, and I never forgot it. There was something about it that stuck in my head for years and years. I saw it in my local library last spring, and I started reading it in early May. It was all that I expected of it, and it illuminated a lot of questions I had been mulling for years.

Jacobs asserts that cities are for use, and that the proper use of cities requires a certain amount of density, a lot of activity in public spaces, and plenty of connections among the various destinations. Urban planners and reformers, such as Le Corbusier, Lewis Mumford, and others, set out not so much to reform and improve city life, as to abolish it altogether. Jacobs describes city life as fundamentally different from suburban or small-town ways of living, and as having requirements that are subverted when one tries to make a city act like a suburb or a small town.

One of the key characteristics of cities is that they much accommodate the interaction of large numbers of strangers. Thus, sidewalks are safest when they are busy and there are many pairs of eyes watching events. Parks are dangerous because they are thinly populated and, thus, short of observers, let alone defenders. This point struck me in light of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, in which he described the behavior of New Guineans when meeting strangers. The first imperative is to establish some relationship so that one party doesn’t have to kill the other. The basic human response to meeting a stranger is defensive/aggressive. Big cities have to make it safe for strangers to come into the city and move around, and, at the same time, make it safe for residents to deal with transients who are unknown and untraceable.

Insights like this make The Death and Life of Great American Cities an invaluable resource. Among other things, one can see that the sort of small-town attitudes and prescriptions characteristic of the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican Party are utterly unworkable in the very different circumstances of big cities.

Orlean, Susan, editor. The Best American Essays 2005.

This is a terrific series of books, and the 2005 version is a fine example.


Bear, Greg. Eon. 1985. 436 pages.

Mediocre science fiction of the world builder/ancient artifact sort. Comparable to Michael Crichton’s Sphere, but without the sharp characterization. An asteroid modified for human habitation has turned up near the Earth, and a large and various team set been set to exploring it. Naturally, there is more to this artifact than at first appears, and it may hold the key to whether or not Earth is destroyed by a nuclear war. I suppose the worst thing about the book is that, when Earth is destroyed, we are so little engaged emotionally that it isn’t particularly moving. Bear has gotten so involved in constructing a stage setting that he has forgotten that “the play’s the thing.”

Coben, Harlan. The Woods. 2007. 404 pages.

I found this thriller interesting and disturbing. When I had finished reading, I realized that there is an enormous flaw at the heart of the plot. The story turns around the disappearance of a number of people involved in a crime committed at a summer camp, and the impact many years later of these events. The problem is that I don’t see the motivation provided by the author as sufficient to have caused the characters to act in the manner described, and certainly not to continue that course of action for twenty years.

Kanon, Joseph. The Good German. 2001. 482 pages.

This is a very fine novel about an American journalist in Berlin right after VE Day. The portrayal of the ruined city, its desperate residents, and its callous occupiers builds a great background to a persuasive murder mystery. Our hero finds that the greatest mystery isn’t the crime, but the human heart.

Stewart, Mary. The Hollow Hills. 1973. 499 pages. The sequel to The Crystal Cave. This is the story of Arthur’s growth to manhood and kingship, and his seduction by his half-sister. A fine story of age meeting youth, wisdom tempering energy, and good intertwined with evil.


Catullus. Catullus, second edition. Translated by Francis Warre Cornish. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1962. The Loeb Classical Library.

The Loeb Classical Library actually published three poets, each with a different translator, in this little volume. I finished The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus in late June. These are quite famous Latin poems, and the German composer Carl Orff followed his success with Carmina Burana with a setting of Carmina Cutulli (Songs of Catullus). I had run across a couple of the first poems in the book in a Latin instruction book. There are one hundred sixteen poems here, with the Latin version on the left-hand page and the English on the recto. (The translators make no attempt to render the English in verse. So you have an English prose translation of each Latin poem.)

Catullus, who lived from 84-54 BCE, wrote love poems, erotic poems, and some downright disgusting poems. One of the nicest is the second:

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
credo ut, cum gravis acquiescet ardor,
sit solaciolum sui doloris,
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curas!

Sparrow, my lady’s pet, with whom she often plays whilst she holds you in her lap, or gives you her fingertip to peck and provokes you to bite sharply, whenever she, the bright-shining lady of my love, has a mind for some sweet pretty play, in hope, as I think, that when the sharper smart of love abates, she may find some small relief from her pain – ah, might I but play with you as she does, and lighten the gloomy cares of my heart.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism - A Review

Weigel, George. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, and Auckland: Doubleday, 2007. 195 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. $18.95.

George Weigel is a Catholic – very Catholic, one might say. He is also a conservative who has contributed to Commentary, the neoconservative magazine. Here we have a little book (157 pages of text), with a big title, that reveals its Catholic roots in numerous ways. For example, Weigel dedicates the book to George Pell, the cardinal archbishop of Sydney, Australia. There are many references to Pope Benedict XVI and his writings. The signature block at the end of the acknowledgments reads:

Commemoration of St. George
25 April 2007
Washington, D.C.

But the main way in which this strikes me as a Catholic (not “catholic”) book is that it is structured as a series of lessons. This is a sort of catechism on the subject of Islam, “jihadism,” and the West’s relations with Muslims and Islamic societies. After a brief introduction, the book consists of fifteen “lessons,” divided into three sections: “Understanding the Enemy,” “Rethinking Realism,” and “Deserving Victory.” These reflect Weigel’s purpose in writing this book. “My purpose here is to identify what we should have learned, since September 11, 2001: about the enemy, about us – and about what must be done to see us through to a future safe for freedom.”

First, since there are so many terms applied to this particular movement, I should say that Weigel likes the term “jihadism” for what others have called “Islamism,” “political Islam,” “Salafism,” or “Islamic fundamentalism.” Islamic fundamentalism does not necessarily imply either political revolution or violent action. Salafism refers to the sub-set of Islamists who believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an unbeliever or an apostate and, thus, deserves to die. Political Islam includes movements seeking to gain power through electoral processes or other peaceful means. Jihadism expresses a movement based on the necessity of undertaking a struggle, if necessary a violent struggle, in order to impose Islamic law on society.

Like Christianity, Islam lays claim to being a universal religion. Allah is everywhere, and the Quran speaks to all men, so a good Muslim may believe that all men ought to submit to the will of God and become Muslims. Most Muslims worry about things close to home, however, and are not overly exercised by the existence of non-Muslim countries far away. The Jihadists, such as Sayyid Qutb, are, Weigel informs us, in the tradition of Taymiyya (1263-1328) and al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792), and are driven by the idea that conflict between Islam and non-Islam is inevitable. In this view, jihad is a defense against the foreign and sinful ideas assaulting the Islamic world from all sides.

In his first section, “Understanding the Enemy,” Weigel reviews much of the history of Islamic interactions with the West and the principles of jihadist belief. This is good and useful material, and it tells us something about the intractability of the cause arrayed against us. I have one problem with this section, Weigel’s contention in his first lesson that: “The great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.” This statement assumes a kind of belief not everyone shares, and it implies that Weigel believes that only religious belief can defeat religious belief. In other words, Weigel presumes here that our struggle with jihadism is a religious war, and that it must be a religious war on our side, as well as on theirs, if we are to win it.

The second section, “Rethinking Realism,” lays out a program for opposing jihadism by recognizing wickedness and preparing the way for “responsible and responsive government.” Weigel also asserts that deterrence is unlike to be of much use against those who seek martyrdom. There are some useful suggestions here, including espousal of a major coordinated campaign of public diplomacy. But it concerns me that, by eschewing deterrence, Weigel is, by extension, dismissing the concept of containment. The alternative is, of course, aggressive action taken to the enemy’s ground. I’m not so sure that jihadism cannot be contained, during the time needed to help responsible governments to evolve in the Muslim world.

Next, in “Deserving Victory,” Weigel asserts that we need to believe that we deserve to defeat jihadism. “Cultural self-confidence is indispensable to victory in the long-term struggle against jihadism.” He urges the West to avoid making concessions to Islamists in the name of tolerance. He suggest depriving jihadism of much of its funding “by developing alternatives to” oil. He asserts, most interestingly, that only a domestic political coalition of the center can be victorious.

Finally, he states that U.S. leadership is indispensable.

This is an interesting little book. One fears that it might be read as suggesting that the United States needs to rally its allies under the banner of Christendom and begin a crusade against Islam. I think Weigel’s aims are more limited, and the means he would use less military, than those of, say, Paul Wolfowitz. I find it hard, however, to see how one can wage an explicitly religious war without arousing passions that are at best difficult to control.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Knight's Reading List XVII: May 2008

Reading List:

Barnes, John. The Duke of Uranium.
Berton, Pierre. The National Dream: The Great Railway 1871-1881.
Drake, David. Balefires.
King, Julie Adair. Digital Photography for Dummies, 5th edition.
Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave.


Berton, Pierre. The National Dream: The Great Railway 1871-1881. 1970. xvi + 503 pages. Index.

Pierre Berton may have been Canada’s best popular historian. He wrote books on the war of 1812, the arctic, World War I, and much more. This is the first of a two-volume set on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Ah, there were men in Canada in those days! And Berton’s stock in trade is portraits and accounts of individual adventures, weaving them into the narrative of how Canada came to undertake the building a railroad that it didn’t need and couldn’t afford, but had to have if it were to be more than a semi-official province of the United States. In this volume, most of the efforts to build the railway are frustrated, but a lot of money and gravel are poured into the muskeg bogs west of Fort William and Port Arthur. Most Americans are far too ignorant of Canada, and they don’t even know how little they know. Pierre Berton can help to correct that deplorable situation.

King, Julie Adair. Digital Photography for Dummies, 5th edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005. 380 pages. Glossary. Index.

There are four basic parts to this book: how to select a digital camera; how to set your camera for the best results; how to store and print or display your output; and how to improve your pictures once they’re in the computer. The author provides lots of examples, making this the most colorful Dummies book I have seen. Like many of the Dummies series, this is an excellent starting point for someone who want to get a little more out of a digital camera.


Barnes, John. The Duke of Uranium. New York: Warner Books, 2002. 290 pages.

The Duke of Uranium is a YA book. That’s “young adult,” and you can always spot that genre by the use of a 16- or 17-year-old hero (or heroine) to undertake adventures most thrillers leave to men and women in their thirties. This one is fast-paced and well-developed. There isn’t a lot to the characters, but Jak Jinnaka, our hero, is quick and resourceful. This book reminded me of some of the Heinlein YA books I read in my youth. Barnes does a good job of world-building, too, with a well-realized corporatist state providing a good background for the teenage hijinks.

Drake, David. Balefires. San Francisco: Nightshade Books, 2007. 303 pages.

If you wanted a collection of two dozen short stories, any one of which could lay icy fingers along your spine or get you to look over your shoulder at every noise down the hall, this might well be that book. David Drake wrote these stories between 1967 and 2005, but the vast majority were first published in the 1970s. They were first published in a variety of magazines and collections, some slick and famous like Omni, some almost private ventures like Whispers.

I’ll tell you this, there are some stories in here I first read more than thirty years ago, and when I re-read them I still got that fine creepy feeling you get from a good horror story, like walking into a mass of cobwebs in a dark cave. “The Barrow Troll” is a lovely story set in medieval northern Europe, dark and portentous, which leave you wondering if it is a tale of madness or of the supernatural. “The Hunting Ground,” set in Durham, North Carolina, a town I, too, lived in during the early 1970s, is a story about particularly sinister invaders from outer space.

The variety of settings is an added element of these stories. Vettius and Dama find monsters in the distant provinces of the Roman Empire. “Something Had to Be Done,” “Firefight” and “The Dancer in the Flames” have their sources in wartime Vietnam. If you like the kind of stories that take you back to the days when you and your friends sat around a campfire trying to scare yourselves silly, you would really enjoy Balefires.

Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. New York William Morrow and Company, Inc.,1970. 495 pages. Author’s Note. Acknowedgements.

The Crystal Cave is the first book of a trilogy of novels set on the Arthurian legend, told from the viewpoint of Merlin, Arthur’s famous magician and counselor. The following books are The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979). There is a fourth book using the same setting, but using Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister as focus and narrator, The Wicked Day (1996). So it up to The Crystal Cave to set the scene, introduce the characters, and put the plot into motion. This Mary Stewart, heretofore an author of romantic mysteries like The Moon-Spinners (1963), does very well indeed.

I suppose the most important thing to say about The Crystal Cave is that Mary Stewart provides us an adult take on the Arthurian legend. This isn’t a fantasy for children, but an exploration of the emotions and actions of two men, Arthur and Merlin, both illegitimate, who come to have powers for which neither has been very well prepared. It is, in many ways, their common illegitimacy that binds Merlin to Arthur, and which gives him his empathy for Arthur’s struggles. While Arthur doesn’t appear in person, as it were, until the later books, in The Crystal Cave Merlin’s relationship with Arthur begins with the arrangements for Arthur’s conception.
It is a very exciting scene, full of storm clouds and ancient stone walls battered by the violent sea, in which Merlin conducts Uther Pendragon to the side of Ugraine, a married woman whose husband is conveniently away, and watches over Arthur’s conception. In fact, Merlin’s motivation is not that of a mere pander, but based on his foreknowledge of Arthur’s ability to unite Britain against the Saxon invaders. This is a Bildungsroman, an historical novel, and a work of forceful and believable magic, all at once. Most of all, this is a fine novel of human emotions and feelings.

Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed - A Review

Evans, Martin, and John Phillips. Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. xvi + 352 pages. Acknowledgements. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Martin Evans is an academic, John Phillips is a journalist, and together they have produced a readable and quite thorough book on Algeria. I noticed some minor errors, such as a reference to William Burns as the “Deputy Secretary of State for North African Affairs”, rather than Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (p. 288). But there is a wealth of detail here, much of it not available elsewhere in English.

For the reader who has little or no background in Algeria, or in North Africa in general, this may be a particularly useful book. It has some material on the period before the French invasion in 1830, locating Algeria in the history of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. This is very brief, and the authors really pick up the story on 14 June 1830, when French troops landed at Sidi Ferruch, just west of Algiers. The story of relations with the French, the continued Algerian attempts to throw off the colonizers, the suppression of Algerian culture, and the encouragement of European settlement on the fertile lands near the Mediterranean coast will be familiar to anyone who has read Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace. But it is well-told here.

Horne’s book may be better on the period of the War of Independence and its precursors, beginning with the 1945 violence at Sétif, but Evans and Phillips tell the story competently, and they have the advantage of some additional information. They take us through the formation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), which became the country’s single political party until the late 1980s. This is where the authors pick up their theme: they assert that many of Algeria’s current problems are rooted in the suppression of historical memory. Few, if any, Algerians know the history of their country, or they know it only through interested accounts by the French, the FLN, or Islamist preachers.

Thus, the French tried to suppress the memory of an independent Algeria, to privilege Europeans over Arabs, Christians and Jews over Muslims, and Francophones over speakers of Arabic. The FLN, in its turn, suppressed the history of the in-fighting within the independence movement, asserting that there was one war, led by the FLN, all of whose one million martyrs were victims of the French. Actually, the military formations of the FLN, which were based in Morocco and Tunisia, did relatively little of the fighting against the French, and were, therefore, in a position to wipe out internal opposition when the French gave up the fight. After Houari Boumedienne, of the Oujda group in the army, ousted Ahmed Ben Bella in a coup in 1965, Ben Bella’s role disappeared from accounts of Algeria’s early days.

The authors assert, as does Horne, that the Islamic (and Islamist) element in the fight for independence has been overlooked, partly because the FLN’s image of the revolution allowed for no divisions. When the Islamists arose in the 1980s under the banner of the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), it was an unwelcome shock to the military leaders behind the government. The military coup of 1992, which stopped elections the FIS was certain to win, was welcomed in some circles (including in France and the United States), but it led to a period of bloodshed in which at least 100,000 and possibly close to one million Algerians died. Again the opacity of Algerian politics is demonstrated by the widespread ignorance of who committed many of the atrocities, and for whom they were ultimately working.

The authors take us up to the period of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was Foreign Minister, I believe, when I was in Algiers in 1979 and 1980. Evans and Phillips argue, with a good deal of supporting evidence, that Bouteflika has been a front for the generals, whose corrupt control of the Algerian economy, particularly imports and exports, would be threatened by any real change in the regime. Finally, the authors argue that the problems of the Algerian economy, society, and polity cannot be resolved without facing up to the past, acknowledging wrong-doing by the military and the security forces, as well as by the Salafists, and giving the Algerian people a real stake in their society.

Evans and Phillips, out of the good European leftist tradition, place too much emphasis, perhaps, on the forces of imperialism; France and the United States have certainly tried to influence the course of events in Algeria, and their interests may not be those of the Algerian people, but most of Algeria’s problems are internal. Evans and Phillips identify quite correctly Algeria’s single biggest problem: youth unemployment. Unemployment in Algeria may be as high as 30%, and 75-80% of those unemployed are young men. That unemployment, in turn, may or may not be due to corruption in the higher levels of government, but it is certain that the government has not managed to invest its oil and gas revenues to create productive employment.

These unemployed young men have become the foot soldiers of various insurgent movements, left, right, and Salafist. The Islamist rebel group GSPC (the French initials for the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) has renamed itself the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Algeria is an obvious recruiting ground for extremist groups. And Evans and Phillips conclude that there is no chance of reforming Algeria as long as the generals have the “war on terror” as an excuse for their suppression of dissent.

This is grim reading, and a lot of the analysis in this book is very accurate. The real question, one to which the authors have no answer, is whether there is any way out of the impasse in which Algeria has entrapped itself. Another round of internal violence may have to play itself out, unless the government is prepared to commit itself to a thorough-going reform of the political system.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Foreign Affairs Bestsellers - May/June 2008

1. The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. Philip Shenon. Twelve, $27.00. [New listing]

2. Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Michael Scheuer. Free Press, $27.00. [New]

3. Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership. Madeleine Albright. Harper, $26.95. [New]

4. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. Muhammad Yunus. PublicAffairs, $26.00. [Previous rank: 12]

5. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Tim Weiner. Doubleday, $27.95. [2]

6. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books, $28.00. [1]

7. Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. Samantha Power. Penguin Press, $32.95. [New]

8. The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes. Norton, $22.95. [New]

9. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism. George Weigel. Doubleday, $18.95. [New]

10. Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power. Fred Kaplan. Wiley, $25.95. [New]

11. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. Robin Wright. Penguin Press, $26.95. [New]

12. The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. Parag Khanna. Random House, $29.00. [New]

13. The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future. Craig Unger. Scribner, $27.00. [4]

14. Condoleeza Rice: An American Life. Elisabeth Bumiller. Random House, $27.95. [5]

15. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00. [8]

There was a big turnover in the list between March/April and May/June. Among the new books, I picked up several to read. So far, I have read George Weigel’s Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism. I have started Dreams and Shadows, by Robin Wright, and The Commission, by Philip Shenon. The books by Michael Scheuer and Fred Kaplan sound interesting, though Kaplan’s title seems to state his thesis in rather bold terms.

Knight's Reading List XVI: April 2008

You may notice that this particular list is heavy on fiction. The major reason for that, I suppose, is that my wife and I were traveling during the first part of April. We went to Florida for a birding event and stayed to visit my mother-in-law. Finishing any of the heavier works I was reading doesn't seem to have been a priority.

Reading List:

Brown, Dan. The DaVinci Code.
Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Crichton, Michael. Sphere.
Drake, David. Master of the Cauldron.
Goff, Christine. A Nest in the Ashes.
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 7th edition.


Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 7th edition. 2003. xiii + 270 pages. Index.

I understand that Mr. Williams has written a new style guide, which superseded Style. Style is a reasonably good resource for the writer who wants to improve. The ten lessons take one through some common mistakes, and they offer some good ways to correct them. This book offers good practice and plenty of examples. Williams is less dogmatic than Strunk and White. Some may see that as an advantage; I see the advantage on the side of Elements of Style. As with drawing, I think that a person needs to learn to write correctly and well before he can grant himself the freedom to start making exceptions to the rules.


Brown, Dan. The DaVinci Code. 2003. 454 pages.

This was a big best-seller, and it became a popular movie with Tom Hanks. I don’t think it’s very well written, and the “facts” underlying the plot are absurd. As far as I know, there is no historical basis to support any of Brown’s suppositions. Now that’s a criticism of Brown’s apparently belief in the context of his novel, and it may not affect your appreciation of the novel. More bothersome may be Brown’s uncertain grasp of (American) English usage and his carelessness about matters which are easily verifiable. Early in the book, Brown inserts into his character’s lecture a ridiculous comment about immigration. I read the book to the end, but I’m not sure why I bothered. If you want a conspiratorial thriller involving the Knights of Malta and all that, try Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel far superior to The DaVinci Code.

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 414 pages. Author’s Note.

This was one of the hit books of recent years, and deservedly so. Michael Chabon is original and imaginative, and he writes very, very well. He goes so far in creating an imaginary, but exactly contemporary world, that he won a major science fiction award for this book. I don’t think of it as science fiction, unless it fits into “alternate history,” a form of fantasy, often involving magic or supernatural efffects. This is an alternate history, in that sense that Chabon is portraying a world which might have resulted from a different result to the Palestine war of 1947-48. He does this with such attention to detail that a reviewer in Commentary criticised him for his choice of street names.

He thus places a large community of Jews in exile, not in Palestine or Uganda, but on the coast of Alaska. Now, sixty years later, Meyer Landsman, a detective on the Sitka police force, is trying to unravel a murder whose motive lies in that history. As the mystery becomes more complex, and Landsman finds himself hacking his way through layers and layers of connections, we are drawn into this marginalized society.

Like many good mystery novels, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union delves into the past of the community to reveal not only the solution to the mystery, but the forces of character and society that have driven someone to the extreme act of murder. Chabon develops this story through beautifully developed characters and their interactions.

Crichton, Michael. Sphere. 1987. 371 pages.

A competent time travel fantasy, with a happy, but unconvincing ending.

Drake, David. Master of the Cauldron. New York: Tor Books, 2004. 428 pages. This is another in the Lord of the Isles series from David Drake.

Goff, Christine. A Nest in the Ashes. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2002. 213 pages.

I read this book because I met Christine Goff on a flight from Denver to Portland in 2003. She was going to a birders’ convention, and I was going to a funeral. Five years later I read the book, and, frankly, I could have waited another few years before bothering with it. It’s a mystery of a sub-sub-sub-genre featuring a main character who is a birder. The biggest problem with the book is with the McGuffin: The character who is eventually revealed as the killer has not been sufficiently developed to support the motive. There isn’t enough there to raise the motive much above the level of a whim, and that sort of irrationality doesn’t make for satisfying mysteries. There are now several more in Ms. Goff’s birding mystery series.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Foreign Affairs Bestsellers - March/April 2008

I should note that Foreign Affairs describes this list as "The top-selling hardcover books on American foreign policy and international affairs." That these are hardcovers explains the prices. You may want to watch for them at your local library, or wait until they appear in paperback.

1. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books, $28.00. [#1 in the previous list.]

2. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Tim Weiner. Doubleday, $27.95. [6]

3. Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations. John Bolton. Threshold Editions, $27.00. [4]

4. The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future. Craig Unger. Scribner, $27.00. [New]

5. Condoleeza Rice: An American Life. Elisabeth Bumiller. Random House, $27.95. [New]

6. The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets ... and How We Could Have Stopped Him. Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Twelve, $25.00. [New]

7. Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall. Amy Chua. Doubleday, $27.95. [9]

8. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00. [3]

9. The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack. Ronald Kessler. Crown Forum, $26.95. [New]

10. God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. Walter Russell Mead. Knopf, $27.95. [7]

11. Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century. David Reynolds. Basic Books, $35.00 [12]

12. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Fugure of Capitalism. Muhammad Yunus. PublicAffairs, $26.00. [New]

13. World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday, $24.95. [2]

14. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. Michael B. Oren. Norton, $35.00. [10]

15. The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea. Steve Levine. Random House, $27.95. [New]

Among the new books, I would think that Creating a World Without Poverty might be the most interesting. The biography of Condoleeza Rice may also be worthwhile.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Foreign Affairs Bestsellers - January/February 2008

I recently posted a link to the current bestsellers list at Foreign Affairs. One of my reasons for publicizing this resource is my feeling that we have too little background to interpret international news. Too few of us have travelled overseas, let alone lived outside the United States. Our local newspapers tend to be short on foreign news. The television networks and the national newspapers have cut their overseas bureaus to the bone, and beyond. Thus, when there is a crisis in Georgia or Gaza, we don't have enough information to place it in context.

I am reading several books right now on the Middle East, reminding myself of material I have known, finding out about recent developments, and discovering other people's viewpoints on situations. But I was shocked to realize that I had read none of the books on Foreign Affairs' bestseller list for January/February 2008. Here it is, so that some of you may be able to do better.

1. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books, $28.00.

2. World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday, $24.95.

3. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00.

4. Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations. John Bolton. Threshold Editions, $27.00.

5. Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War. Bob Drogin. Random House, $27.95.

6. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Tim Weiner. Doubleday, $27.95.

7. God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. Walter Russell Mead. Knopf, $27.95.

8. The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. Abraham H. Foxman. Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95.

9. Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall. Amy Chua. Doubleday, $27.95.

10. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. Michael B. Oren. Norton, $35.00.

11. Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark. Walker & Company, $28.95.

12. Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century. David Reynolds. Basic Books, $35.00.

13. Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Cullen Murphy. Houghton Mifflin, $24.00.

14. A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor, and Country. Wesley K. Clark. Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95.

15. The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. Mark Lilla. Knopf, $26.00.

Let me add a couple of notes. While I haven't read the book, I have read Norman Podhoretz' World War IV in the version serialized in Commentary magazine. This is scary stuff. After I learned that Podhoretz was a major foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani, I was really glad that Giuliani crapped out in the Republican primaries. If you think Paul Wolfowitz was a bad neoconservative influence in the Bush administration, imagine Podhoretz in a similar role.

Mearsheimer and Walt's book (#3) aroused a great deal of angst in the Jewish political community. Foxman's book (#8) is one of the responses to Mearsheimer and Walt. Maybe one should read them in tandem. From the use of the term "control" in Foxman's sub-title, I suspect he's using a strawman argument against Mearsheimer and Walt, but, as I haven't read either book, I can't really say.

The ones I think will probably prove most worthwhile:

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

Those are the three I'm adding to my reading list.

Obama's National Security Team

Fred Kaplan wrote a column for Slate about the appointment of Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (The column is attached to the title of this piece.) The burden of Mr. Kaplan's assertion that this is a good appointment is that Panetta knows his audience. More to the point, he knows what the consumers of intelligence need to know.

I used to do training for a living. My then-manager taught me one very valuable lesson about training, one which applies to other areas of life. The point isn't to tell your audience everything you know, although that might make you look smart. The point is to tell them what they need to know in order to do their jobs. That means that you need to know their business; you need to know something about their jobs and what is required to do them. So I can see Mr. Kaplan's point: Panetta knows what information his customers need, so he will also know what information to demand from the resources under his command.

The weakness of appointing a career professional to the top job isn't only that he won't have any political clout, although he won't, at least until he proves himself. It's that agencies have values that distort the information they give the consumers - values that are irrelevant to the needs of the consumers. For example, I hear that there is a tendency to rotate the subjects of the President's Daily Brief among various bureaus, so that no one will feel left out. That's all very well, but the only criteria for inclusion in the brief is how important the information may be to decisions the President is going to have to make.

For this sort of objective assessment you need people who understand the political process and what issues are confronting the White House. On the other hand, you also need a lot of solid professionals to support the effort. It appears from another Kaplan article that Mr. Obama is putting together a very sound team of professionals at the operational level in the Defense and State Departments:

Lest you think that only the mainstream media types at Slate see benefits in the appointment of Mr. Panetta, Mark Safranski wrote an article on the subject which appeared in the conservative site Pajamas Media:

These may be straws in the wind, but it seems that Mr. Obama is determined to have good advisors, and good implementers, on the national security front, so that he can concentrate on the economy without worrying that the world will descend into chaos due to American inattention.