I just finished reading Jill LePore’s amazing book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (which, as you can see, is unlikely to be a #1 bestseller because it lacks the requisite paragraph-length subtitle). I’ve no idea why I wanted to read it—I was a Marvel , not a DC, reader as a kid, and before reading LePore’s carefully planted trailers most of what I knew came from the Lynda Carter series which I watched as a kid. So pretty much everything in the book was a revelation.
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Its been a long time coming, but we, at least, feel it’s been worth the wait. My book with Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, was published earlier this Fall. The book originated in conversations we started having many years ago when I was living in the UK, and we found not only that we were both planning to write books about the place of the family in liberal egalitarian theory, but had similar enough views, and different enough habits of mind, that a book written together would be better than either of us would write separately. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
The family is hotly contested ideological terrain. Some defend the traditional two-parent heterosexual family while others welcome its demise. Opinions vary about how much control parents should have over their children’s upbringing. Family Values provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should—and should not—have over their children.
Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift argue that parent-child relationships produce the “familial relationship goods” that people need to flourish. Children’s healthy development depends on intimate relationships with authoritative adults, while the distinctive joys and challenges of parenting are part of a fulfilling life for adults. Yet the relationships that make these goods possible have little to do with biology, and do not require the extensive rights that parents currently enjoy. Challenging some of our most commonly held beliefs about the family, Brighouse and Swift explain why a child’s interest in autonomy severely limits parents’ right to shape their children’s values, and why parents have no fundamental right to confer wealth or advantage on their children.
Family Values reaffirms the vital importance of the family as a social institution while challenging its role in the reproduction of social inequality and carefully balancing the interests of parents and children.
You can read more about it, too, at the p. 99 test.
A good number of the ideas have been tested at some point or another on Crooked Timber, and we’re grateful to commentators for taking us to task. In fact we’ve been lucky in having been able to publish, and get feedback on, some of our ideas along the way – among the many reasons it’s taken us a while is that our ideas have evolved in response to the feedback we have gotten (this is my way of saying that the book is not a simple repackaging of the best-known papers we’ve published on the subject, but a wholesale rethinking with substantially different arguments and, in some cases, conclusions).
Since the book is about the family, I thought I’d share two of my children’s reactions when I first brought a copy of the book home. My 8 year old (boy) said “Oh you wrote a book, that’s interesting. Its a bit strange having that huge dead chicken on the cover, though”. The eldest (girl, whose friends were still frequenting the house in great numbers when the first copy turned up, just before she left for college) was less excited. “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….its not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“.
In my class today someone made reference to the Kitty Genovese case (it was relevant) and I commented, casually, that I thought that the claim that 30 something people had looked on while Genovese had been discredited. Another student said “oh no, I am revising for a test later today about this” and proceeded to give us the standard account of the case. Here’s Nick Lemann’s New Yorker review of the books that seemingly discredit it.
I sent the students the link, and a different student wrote back that she had thought I was joking in class (they know I do that sometimes) and that as a psychology major she hears about the case in every class she takes. That got me to thinking about the Milgram experiment (which philosophers make much more of than they do of the Genovese case) which, again, seems to me (I say “seems” because I read part of Gina Perry’s book, and have heard her interviewed in depth) also discredited. And made me wonder i) whether anyone has a refutation of Perry’s book but, more, ii) how quickly professors adjust their teaching when findings they have taught as gospel are thoroughly discredited. I was a bit shocked, frankly, that the Genovese case is still being taught as something to be regurgitated in a test, but I am also quite struck by the number of times I have heard philosopher’s call on the Milgram experiment as evidence for some philosophical view, and wondered how long it will take before it is removed from the philosopher’s armoury (and the psychologist’s lectures)
I’ll be open about my preference, only in order to tell a story. The issue came up last week in a class of mine which contains a student from the UK. I made an off-hand comment (overstating the case) that I was a bit shocked to find out that I am a hard line unionist. Two minutes later the student, sounding quite distressed, said “Yes, that’s what I’ve found out too”. I said “what, in the course of the campaign” and she said “No. 2 minutes ago”. I felt guilty. Still do.
However things go, if you want a really fun read, try CJ Sansom’s Dominion. Well, if the No vote wins, and you are very disappointed indeed, you might want to wait a year or so.
Anyway go ahead. Please be polite—at some point I will go to bed and stop monitoring.
Chris Brooke reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès.
Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.
His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.
And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.
I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.
Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).
Other, incongruous, uses of songs?
Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).
So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:
Jordan Ellenberg has devised an ingenious way of working out what books get bought but not read:
Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read.
Using this method, he finds that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has an HI of 98.5%, whereas Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has an HI of just 2.4%, worse even than Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, widely known as the ‘most unread book of all time’.
I find the Tartt result unsurprising because when, recently, I read her first book,The Secret History I spent the first 350 pages wondering why on earth I was reading it. Not only were all the characters repulsive, but, worse, I strongly suspected the author thought they were really cool. The picture of the author did not inspire confidence that I might be wrong. And, there really seemed to be no plot and I am someone who has no compunction putting down a bad book, so the fact that despite all that I remained hooked impressed me a lot (and it was completely worth it: from around p.350 it is riveting).
But (in Jordan’s spirit of this being entertainment, not science) several comments. First, in defense of Piketty, it is a great read, not at all what I had been led to expect, so if people are giving up they are missing out. Second, though, most copies of Hawking’s book were sold prior to Kindle, and I suspect that hard copies of books, which are sometimes bought for show, are more likely to go unread than kindle copies, which are often bought in order not to show (see 50 Shades). So, Hawking, I think, is still a winner. Next, though, the problem with the method is that I suspect that the kind of people who mark passages in their kindles are unrepresentative readers (not being rude, or anything, just seems quirky). But, finally. When I was a teenager, I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on the bookshelves of just about every house I ever went to, including the houses of people whom I never saw reading even a shopping list, let alone talking about a book. I do believe there are, or at least have been, people who have read it, but I’d be amazed if it would have gotten a HI of 0.5%.
Finally, finally, I wonder about academic books? I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read, and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it (one reviewer based his entire review on the blurb for the book; and a second attributed to me, and criticized, exactly the opposite thesis from the one that I was defending).
Anyway, other nominees for unread, or ought-to-be-unread, books, with or without evidence?
Telegraph obit here. Kevin Turvey was the first I ever heard of him, and still my favourite. A kind of punk rock Ronnie Corbett.
Sue Townsend is also dead. Guardian obit here. I have a small supply of Adrian Mole books, which I give to students (even if, sometimes, I don’t know them well) who have prolonged illnesses—or sometimes just to cheer them up. I have no idea whether it works for them, but it pretty much always works for me.
Late in life he wondered if his readiness to serve on committees was a byproduct of a childhood that had left him “unusually glad to find myself wanted”. Yet he was sceptical about the idea that these compulsions had stopped him from producing another Uses of Literacy. “Did you really expect that I would?” he asked an interviewer. “I didn’t. That’s the sort of book that – if you’re lucky – you can write once in a lifetime.”