If you know me socially, you might not know what a big part of my life reading comprises. I view reading the way an actor views his first important role: it’s the vehicle for me to advance in life, my career, and art.
I was an awful reader in elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I really started reading, after being shamed by my sister about the terrible spelling on my Christmas List. My mother took the list to the toy store and the clerk said, “Maybe you should buy him a dictionary for christmas.” So I started checking out books from the Middle School Library about ESP and the Bermuda Triangle and Atomic Submarines and anything else that seemed cool or paranormal or militarily interesting. Anyhow, looking back on my life so far, I can see that reading has been the most fruitful activity I’ve engaged in, and my books are, collectively, the most valuable possession that I own.
A couple of the 36 books I read in 2017 were boring, but some were very interesting. When I look at a book on my shelf like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which I read in 2008 and which served as the basis for the musical, I wonder how I ever hadn’t read that or another book. Reading changes your perspective so emphatically that I don’t think I am really the same person that I was in, say, 2007, a hundred and fifty books ago.
Teddy Roosevelt read a book a day. I was struggling to read a book a week this year and I only made about 3/4 of the goal. But in Edmund Morris’ biography, he talks of how TR read many different genres and allowed the ideas to “cross pollinate” in his mind, where they would form new ideas. I’ve tried to do that over the course of my adult life, but I could never describe what I was aiming at, until I read Morris’ description.
Anyhow, here are a couple of interesting things I learned from books this year.
–A lightbulb can burn for 100 years if you leave it on. What destroys the filament in a lightbulb is turning it on and off, because it heats up and cools down, which causes stress in the metal, like bending a spoon back and fourth until the metal softens and it breaks. (To Engineer is Human, The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Hentry Petroski, 1985.)
–After the great Chicago Fire of 1871, the only living creature to survive the flaming inferno was the postoffice cat, who workers found nestled in a half-filled pail of water when they dug through the debris. (Ten American Cities, Nina Brown Baker, 1949, p. 218)
–Anyone with an interest in great literature, characterization, and New York City history should read Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote profiles for The New Yorker in the 1920s-60s. In this book I first heard of McSorley’s Tavern and the health benefits of raw oysters.
–What made New York the Empire State was not just the construction of the Erie Canal, but the dispersal of the toll money which accreted to the state to individual banks throughout the state, for use as their capital. This stimulated the financial sector in New York while supplying capital to small investors when capital was scarce. It also allowed very small investors to invest in canal stock through the first savings and loan institutions. (Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People, Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838, Cornell, 1962.)
–How did Calvin Coolidge become president? By being in the right place at the right time, all the time. He had a pretty radical college professor when he was at Amherst. The professor taught the students that life is like a river, and the trick is to stay in the middle where the current is. Don’t get stuck in the weeds or grounded out on rocks–in other words, caught up in scandals or an impulsive decision or leave politics, and then eventually some opportunity will arise and you will be in a position to make use of it. In 1922 that opportunity was being appointed as Harding’s VP–basically a throw-away job designed to attract votes from the northeast. Then Harding died of a heart attack, and Coolidge was in the right place. (Coolidge, Amity Shlaes, 2013)
–Hoover, on the other hand, was in the right place at the wrong time. Here is a man who’s reputation history has really destroyed, who had such promise before 1929. He made himself a fortune in mining in Australia and China before he was 30. When WWI broke out he was living in Brittian and organized the efforts to get Americans out of Europe, when they had no access to money because the markets had frozen. Then he organized a huge food relief effort for Belgium during the war–the only man allowed to travel behind enemy lines of both sides. Then he was head of food mobilization for the U.S. under Wilson. Then he organized a massive relief program for Europe after the war, in order to keep communism from spreading to a destroyed France, Germany, etc. But when in office during the Depression, his insistence on a strict reading of the Constitution and that Americans needed to find a way to help themselves left a poor taste in voter’s mouths. In 1932, FDR didn’t have so much of a plan as an attitude that when 1/4 of the country was out of work, the government must, to paraphrase, “Try something, anything. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try something else. But above all we must try.” (Hoover, Kenneth Whyte; FDR, Jean Edward Smith).
There is a mindfullness to the New Orleans culture which is refreshing compared to the doctrinaire morality of the north. Up here people go to the bar and do shots to get drunk, but poo poo a person who has a cocktail before noon. In New Orleans they enjoy themselves. Lift Your Spirits is a cocktail book written by Chris Williams, bartender extraordinaire from New Orleans. The cocktail recipes are great, but the philosophy of his book is the best part. He describes the bar as a kind of “proscenium”–a word I had to look up. It is the portion of a stage in front of the curtain, where a narrator or MC introduces the action. What a great image for a bar, and what a great way to think about your bar experience. You’re not just at the bar to get drunk, but to share a communal entertainment. If you’re a fan of the art of cocktails you should really watch this video of Chris Williams making a Mint Julep.
I’m not sure why Machiavelli has the reputation of saying “The Ends Justify the Means.” I didn’t find that quote anywhere in The Prince. Also, he seems like a yes-man who’ll do anything to curry favor with a local tyrant.
Karl Marx was too clever by half. The first half of his manifesto seems reasonable enough, insofar as he anticipated that wealth and power could not continue to accrue into the hands of rich robber barons while the majority of people worked 15 hour days for 6 out of 7 days just to make a bare subsistence. But he throws the baby out with the bath water and insists that democracy is also ineffectual, and so there must eventually be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and it must be worldwide. It set up the 20th century to be a war between Communism and any other form of government, which they viewed as enemies. I think I’d rather live in a corrupt democracy that at least depends every election cycle on seeming to have the support of a majority of people, than live under a dictatorship of mechanics and factory workers without any constitutional rights. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Or as Robert Frost said, “Revolutions are the only salves, but they’re one thing that should be done by halves.”
There were highlights from the histories of the medieval times, and a fascinating book by The Economist about the different kinds of financial markets and their function, but, alas, I’ve got to get ready to go to work now.