Weekend Reads

What are you reading over the weekend?

Anthony T.: Man’s Search for Himself (1953) by Rollo May

Rollo May is one of the fathers of existential psychology, which takes a different view of psychotherapy in that meaning is what is central to human existence. May discusses of the problems of modern man– anxiety, loneliness and the death of God– in an academic but very readable work. If you enjoy Nietzche,  Kierkegaard or Rilke, you’ll dig this book.

Diana: I’ve heard everyone rave about Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! over the past year, but never felt taken by its plot (Girl growing up in an alligator wrestling amusement park? What?). Thanks to a McNally Jackson gift card balance, I picked up the paperback last week and haven’t put it down since. Russell is a talented writer who has a gift for genius descriptions that don’t sound like she’s trying too hard. Plus, I’m a big fan of animals with very human names, and “Seth” for an alligator definitely qualifies.

Also, in honor of what would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday earlier this week, The Awl posted a great roundup – articles by and about him, interviews, audio. I’ve spent the last few days reading, rereading, and reminiscing. Thoughts about David Foster Wallace vs. Jonathan Franzen to come in a future post, if Anthony K. doesn’t beat me to it.

Anthony K.: I’m finally getting around to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which a friend from law school recommended to me several months ago. The book is an enormously ambitious attempt to explain one of the largest social reorganizations in human history: the shift from 19th century social order to the market economy. One of the central themes of the book — which to the chagrin of many liberals remains somewhat controversial even today — is that ‘free markets’ and ‘self-regulating markets’ are planned (i.e. not “natural”). Polanyi catalogs how these ‘self-regulating markets’ actually require a strong state both to function and to clean up the massive societal and environmental devastation that markets produce.

Probably the most controversial, and most interesting, idea in the book is that politicians’ efforts to sacrifice political order in order to prop up free market structures as the backbone of the international order is actually what ultimately led to the system’s implosion into World War, twice. Or as he states his thesis, “the origins of the cataclysm lay in the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system.” The genius of his insight is that market systems require a kind of utopian belief that can only be sustained by political willpower and in the end by the threat of force. Polanyi has turned the argument that free-marketeers commonly raise against more socialist or egalitarian systems against those same free-market advocates, and then he goes on to locate this faith as the central fault line underlying one of the largest man-made disasters in history.

I also think this is far more insightful than a kind of bad man, fascists took power account of the Second World War in particular. Polanyi’s account is far more structural, and the systems he’s critiquing were ones that a lot of smart, peace-loving and well-intentioned people believed in. There are always going to be ideologues and crypto-fascists of various sorts in politics, but at the risk of overstating it, it takes widespread confusion and dysfunctional political situations to give them any serious footing.  The last thing I’ll say is that the book is full of eerie similarities to our current political predicament. The collapse of eastern Europe in the 1930s was the result of a politically-imposed austerity, sought out by politicians besotted with the gold standard and hoping to keep their currencies stable and attractive to the world of haute finance. It’s really disconcerting to see how closely some of this history is repeating.

I’m also reading Roberto Bolanño’s The Third Reich, which isn’t about WWII at all. It’s about a German who goes on vacation in Spain, who wants to spend most of the trip thinking about a board game and avoiding social interactions. It’s good.

Jonathan H.: I’m currently wending my way through John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Plot-wise and structurally, it’s a little different from the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed and wholeheartedly recommend. I typically don’t read spy novels, so it’s a nice change of pace.

Mike: I’m about to start Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It’s the worst HP. The writing is weak, the characters not fully developed. But it’s also a positively transporting work. And, like Anthony T’s book, it’s about “anxiety, loneliness and the death of God.”

I also suggest that everyone read the NYT obituary of John Fairfax. He was most famous for rowing across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but I appreciate his general badass-ness. To wit:

“At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate.”

There’s lots more where that came from. Go read it.

4 Comments on “Weekend Reads”

  1. Anthony K says:

    Sorry for writing so much. Clearly not familiar with the format.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I’m reading DUFL Press this weekend. It’s about the birth of the universe.

  3. Jonathan H. says:

    Wow, sick find, Mike M. John Fairfax is the REAL Most Interesting Man in the World.

    “I don’t always attempt suicide, but when I do, I prefer death by jaguar.”

    • Mike says:

      The props for finding that obit lie with Andrew Telzak. He pointed it out to me last week.

      I don’t always read obituaries, but when I do, they’re about pirate apprentices.

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