It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays 2012-2018

Ian Penman (2019)

Reports from music criticism. While it presents itself as a book of essays, it’s actually an anthology of the author’s book reviews over the past decades. That’s not a criticism, although until you realise what’s happening it’s confusing to see repeated mentions of a particular book.

The essays/reviews range over big names like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Charlie Parker, and Steely Dan, and the lesser-known like John Fahey and entire scenes like the Mods. One name that’s missing, but that strangely haunts the book by her absence, is Billie Holiday: I think it’s all the jazz references, but you can feel that she should be here in her own right – and then I read the introduction (having read the book), and read the author’s explanation of why he didn’t feel he could do her justice. Hopefully he’ll write another book just for her.

4/5. Finished Friday 9 April, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Dancing with a Lenovo Duet

A Chromebook that behaves like a proper tablet.

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The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel (2020)

A political philosopher takes on the whole notion of meritocracy.

The idea that we can – and should! – live in a meritocracy is taken as an almost as axiomatic in most societies. So it’s refreshing, (if also terrifying) to read a take-down of the idea. And it’s the idea itself that’s the target, not simply the imperfact state of modern societies relative to an ideal.

In the UK we have a parliament whose social backgrounds bear a striking resemblance to the aristocratic parliaments of the nineteenth century: the wealthy and the elite-educated serve in massive over-proportion to their presence in the general population. After a brief interlude in the early-to-mid twentieth century when the situation was more balanced, representation is back with to being a preserve the elite.

However, the problem, as Sandel describes it, runs deeper. Meritocracy, even if accomplished fairly (which is hasn’t been), is destructive for those who lose out, and who are therefore simultaneously excluded from power and from social advancement. At the same time, education (and especially higher education) is left to do all the heavy lifting in terms of social mobility, but faces a problem whereby previous winners pass on advantages like private tuition and social contacts to their children.

I think the problems raised here are true for many societies. They’re perhaps more acute in the US, not least because top colleges often prioritise the children of alumni and so institutionalise the passing-on of advantage. But it’s true that the UK has removed a lot of the props that allowed previous generations of working class kids – the “first chancers”, the first in their families to go to university – to get ahead. This book provides a lot of intellectual muscle for a fight back, as well as some policy precriptions.

4/5. Finished Thursday 1 April, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (2020)

A group of libertarians decide that they need to form a free utopia, and move en masse to a town in the forests of New Hampshire that just happens to be in the middle of a massive boom in the local bear population. Hilarity ensues.

Well, not hilarity exactly, although this book is laugh-out-loud funny in places. But there are serious points being made too. The libertarians take apart the town’s community activities and services, to some extent by freeloading off the services in neighbouring towns that have only fractionally higher taxes but have larger populations because they’re … ermm … better places to live. The collective resources are depleted to the point that the bear become more than a metaphor, a problem for which the town can’t summon a collective response. And the final humiliation is that, when a national libertarian movement in the same vein starts, and also picks New Hampshire as their target for their new society, they don’t find the original enclave welcoming enough and start their own communities elsewhere.

It’s hard to know exactly what the moral of the story is, if there is one. Certainly it makes a point about the benefits of community very well. But it’s also somewhat trapped within a rather American rubric of democracy simply meaning having more votes than the other groups, where the majority can impose their will without too many safeguards,

5/5. Finished Thursday 25 March, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Ariel Sabar (2020)

What happens when an academic is offered the physical support for their theories? This is the story of the “Gospel of Jesus’ wife”, a Coptic fragment purporting to contain and almost-contemporaneous quote of Jesus referring to Mary Magdalene in this way. If that sounds like The Da Vinci Code, well, yes it does – and one of the many ironies is that the academic receiving the fragment was a consultant on the film….

The details of this simple-sounding con – and it does sound like a con, even from such a short description – involve a deep-dive into the provenance of ancient documents, the international market in papyri, the intricacies of Coptic linguistics, and other high-culture sub-cultures. Very few people come out well.

But there’s no physical evidence to link the papyrus’ creation to the specific individual, and while the circumstantial case is compelling, there’s still something slight unsatisfactory about the investigation. Why did the forger – if indeed he was the forger – do it? He seems to have had no motive. Even though he had the background, did he have the practical skills? And indeed, might he have been more skilled than he turned out to be?

4/5. Finished Saturday 20 March, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)