Friday, October 31, 2014

Witty Pianist Oscar Levant

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1906 to an Orthodox Jewish family from Russia, Levant moved to New York in 1922, following the death of his father, Max. He began studying under Zygmunt AStojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1924, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system.

In 1928, Levant traveled to Hollywood where his career took a turn for the better. During his stay, he met and befriended George Gershwin. From 1929 to 1948 he composed the music for more than twenty movies. During this period, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous popular songs that made the Hit Parade, the most noteworthy being "Blame It On My Youth" (1934), now considered a standard.

Around 1932, Levant began composing seriously. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and impressed him sufficiently to be offered an assistantship (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified). His formal studies led to a request by Aaron Copland to play at the Yaddo Festival of contemporary American music on April 30 of that year. Successful, Levant began composing a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta. He married actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932.

In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (née Doris Gilmartin; June 6, 1911 – November 13, 1996), one of the Gale Sisters. Oscar and June were married for 33 years, until his death in 1972. They had three children: Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.

At this time, Levant was perhaps best known to American audiences as one of the regular panelists on the radio quiz show Information Please. Originally scheduled as a guest panelist, Levant proved so quick-witted and popular that he became a regular fixture on the show in the late 1930s and 1940s, along with fellow panelists Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran, and moderator Clifton Fadiman. "Mr. Levant", as he was always called, was often challenged with musical questions, and he impressed audiences with his depth of knowledge and facility with a joke. Kieran praised Levant as having a "positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn't have been sharper if he'd honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid."

From 1947–49, Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall, starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied singer Jolson on the piano with classical and popular songs, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This included comedy sketches. The pairing of the two entertainers was inspired. Their individual ties to George Gershwin—Jolson introduced Gershwin's "Swanee"—undoubtedly had much to do with their rapport. Both Levant and Jolson appeared as themselves in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945). He appeared as an actor in such films as Rhapsody in Blue (1945), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and An American in Paris (1951).[

In the early 1950s, Levant was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show, Who Said That?, in which celebrities would try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports.

Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with top-name guests such as Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. A full recording of only two shows is known to exist, one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made, so that he could assess his performance. This is likely the only Astaire performance to have imperfections, as it was live, and Levant would repeatedly change the tempo of his accompaniment to Astaire's singing during the bridges between verses, which appeared to get him quite off balance at first. He did not dance, as the studio space was extremely small.

The show was highly controversial, eventually being taken from the air after a comment about Marilyn Monroe’s's conversion to Judaism: "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her". He later stated that he "hadn't meant it that way". Several months later, the show began to be broadcast in a slightly revised format—it was taped in order to provide a buffer for Levant's antics. This, however, failed to prevent Levant from making comments about Mae West’s's sex life that caused the show to be canceled for good. Levant was also a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s talk show, prompting Paar in later years to sign off by saying, "Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are." By the time Oscar Levant was appearing on the Paar show he had developed a shaking condition, prompting Paar to introduce him one night as "...the only man I know who could mortally wound himself eating Jello with a fork." On an appearance on The Tonight Show, from New York, Levant once quipped that his Jaguar ambulance was waiting outside for him. He would later use the same ambulance reference during his guest appearance on The Jack Benny Show in 1958.

The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure."

Open about his neuroses and hypochondria, in later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs and was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife. Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. (He himself wisecracked "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.")

Later Life and Death

Levant withdrew increasingly from the limelight in his later years.

He is widely regarded as having been the inspiration for furtive lover Henry Orient in the novel by Nora Johnson, subsequently turned into a Hollywood film (1964), "The World of Henry Orient".

Levant died in Beverly Hills, California, of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 65. His death was discovered by his wife June when she called him from their bedroom to meet for an interview with Candice Bergen, a photojournalist at the time. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, comics tell an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill."

Note by the Blog Author

Oscar Levant worked closely with George Gershwin and may have been the best and most definitive interpreter of Gershwin's piano work (some of these recordings are still available).  There was never anything, before or since, on television like Levant's television talk show.  He remains famous to this day to some baby boomers who watched his regular appearances on Jack Paar's primetime talk show from 1962 to 1965.

Levant's neuroses affected his health and ruined his career as a pianist.  But there was something heroic about him, because he knew this about himself, and he never lost his wit or comedic timing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween explained

Halloween or Hallowe'en is a contraction of "All Hallows’ Evening"), also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day.  It initiates the triduum of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows' Eve revolves around the theme of using "humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.”

According to many scholars, All Hallows' Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain.  Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.

Typical festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (or the related "guising"), attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted house attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films. In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows' Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, although in other locations, these solemn customs are less pronounced in favor of a more commercialized and secularized celebration.  Because many Western Christian denominations encourage, although no longer require, abstinence from meat on All Hallows' Eve, the tradition of eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day developed, including the consumption of apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CBS Reporter Harrassed

Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington.
[new hardcover book]  by Sharyl Attkisson

Sharyl Attkisson being interviewed by RealClearPolitics on video:

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From on Stonewalled (a  book to be released on November 4, 2014):

Editorial Reviews


“Attkisson offers a harrowing and gripping account of journalism as practiced these days in Washington. She skillfully unveils how she discovered the secret scheme to spy on her. The larger and more disturbing takeaway is how the mainstream are falling down on the job.” (Jeff Gerth, Pulitzer Prize winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times)

From the Back Cover

Who’s been hacking Sharyl Attkisson’s computers? Computers that turn themselves on in the night, make strange noises, then shut themselves down. Whoever is doing it is using highly sophisticated spyware available only to our top intelligence agencies. Is someone sending Attkisson a message?

Washington, D.C., has always been a tough town for investigative journalists. But in the age of Obama, the government has taken the tried-and-true techniques of bureaucratic stonewalling to unprecedented heights. What’s more, it has added harassment, intimidation, and outright spying to the mix.

Through more than thirty years as an award-winning investigative reporter, Sharyl Attkisson fought tirelessly to uncover wrongdoing by those in power, whether major corporations, government officials, or presidential administrations of both parties. But when she started looking into stories involving the Obama administration’s mistakes and misjudgments in a series of high-profile cases—stories few in mainstream journalism would touch—she was confronted with the administration’s use of hardball tactics to discourage, block, and actively suppress her investigative work.

A dogged reporter with a well-earned reputation as a “pit bull,” Attkisson filed a series of groundbreaking stories on the Fast and Furious gunwalking program, Obama’s green energy boondoggle, the unanswered questions about Benghazi, and the disastrous rollout of Obamacare. Her news reports were met with a barrage of PR warfare tactics, including emails and phone calls up the network chain of command, criticism from paid-for commenters and bloggers, and a campaign of character assassination that continues to this day. Most disturbing of all, Attkisson reveals that as she broke news on Fast and Furious and Benghazi, her computers and phone lines were hacked and bugged by an unrevealed but tremendously sophisticated party.

Stonewalled is the story of the Obama administration’s efforts to monitor journalists, intimidate and harass opposition groups, and spy on private citizens. But it is also a searing indictment of the timidity of the press and the dangerous decline of investigative journalism and unbiased truth telling in America today.

About the Author

Sharyl Attkisson has been a working journalist for more than thirty years. She has covered controversies under the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, emerging with a reputation, as the Washington Post recently put it, as a “persistent voice of news-media skepticism about the government’s story.” She is the recipient of five Emmy Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. Her work has appeared on the CBS Evening News, CBS Sunday Morning, 48 Hours, and CBS This Morning.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Nerd" Defined

Nerd (adjective: nerdy) is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, obscure, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities. Additionally, many nerds are described as being shy, quirky, and unattractive, and may have difficulty participating in, or even following, sports. Though originally derogatory, "Nerd" is a stereotypical term, but as with other pejoratives, it has been reclaimed and redefined by some as a term of pride and group identity. 


The first documented appearance of the word "nerd" is as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which the narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.  The slang meaning of the term dates back to 1951, when Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for "drip" or "square" in Detroit, Michigan.  By the early 1960s, usage of the term had spread throughout the United States, and even as far as Scotland At some point, the word took on connotations of bookishness and social ineptitude.

An alternate spelling, as nurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s or early 1970s. Author Philip K. Dick claimed to have coined this spelling in 1973, but its first recorded use appeared in a 1965 student publication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Oral tradition there holds that the word is derived from "knurd" ("drunk" spelled backwards), which was used to describe people who studied rather than partied. The term nurd was in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as early as 1971.

The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the word is an alteration of the 1940s term nert (meaning "stupid or crazy person"), which is itself an alteration of "nut".

The term was popularized in the 1970s by its heavy use in the sitcom Happy Days.

“Nerdy” Interests

  • Intellectual, academic, or technical hobbies, activities, and pursuits, especially topics related to science, mathematics, engineering, linguistics, history and technology.
  • Hobbies, games, and activities that are described as obsessive and "immature", such as trading cards, comic books, fantasy and science fiction novels, television programs, and video games.
  • Interest in the fine arts, non-mainstream music such as classical, techno, or folk music, hobbies (i.e., collecting), or other "obscure" interests.
  • Heavy obsession with a topic that would otherwise be mainstream (such as a popular TV show or a sport).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

John R Bond of R&T

Introduction by the Blog Author

In addition to reading Mechanix Illustrated as a tween and teen (see yesterday’s blog post), as a teenager I was a fascinated subscriber to Road & Track magazine, particularly because of the copy quality of the articles as selected by publisher John R. Bond.  I grew up bathed in engineering from my father and his Coast Guard Academy cronies, all of whom were marine engineers.  My father had been the editor of the Merchant Marine Proceedings in the early 1960s.;  I was therefore devoted to the top notch engineering knowledge wittily presented in R&T.  I still remember some of the con brio of that remarkable publication (which still exists in 2014).  Oh.  In the 1960s, teenage boys used to get into furious arguments about automobiles and which were superior models and why they were the best.  I was a terror in those discussions and usually either won outright or daunted the competition.  A lot of that firepower came from the thorough engineering mind of John R. Bond.

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By Joseph M. Sherlock, 2013

John R. Bond was publisher of Road & Track magazine from 1949 to 1972. He was a pioneer in field of automotive writing and publishing. An engineer by training, Bond once designed motorcycles for Harley-Davidson.

Born in Muncie, Indiana on July 25, 1912, his automotive interests were encouraged by a father who was also in the automotive business. Following graduation in mechanical engineering from the General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan in 1934, John worked with Harley-Davidson, Studebaker (from 1940 to '43) and White Truck. When he began contributing to R&T, he was a design engineer with custom and race car builder Frank Kurtis.

Road & Track magazine was founded in Hempstead, NY by Wilfred H. Brehaut, Jr. and Joseph S. Fennessy. The first issue - dated June 1947 - predated Hot Rod and Motor Trend. But Road & Track struggled; issues were sporadic. John R. Bond wrote his first article for R&T, 'What Is a Sports Car?' in 1948. In 1949, Bond and his second wife, Elaine, bought Road & Track and turned things around.

Bond brought an engineer's logic to the publication but had a talent for writing about technical matters in layman's terms. While others, including the legendary Tom McCahill, had published road tests of cars, John R. Bond's reports provided far more data, including acceleration graphs, time to distance, time to speed, maximum speeds in gears, stopping times, fuel economy and speedometer error.

He also authored a monthly column, 'Miscellaneous Ramblings'. Subjects ranged from automotive history, personal observations, quips about new automotive offerings and obscure technical details about cars of all kinds. John penned every column from 1950 to 1969.

David E. Davis Jr., who once was an employee of R&T, wrote that the Bond's "vision for the Road & Track of the Fifties was shaped like this: America has no magazines like Autocar or Motor. America's car enthusiasts need a magazine of that kind, a magazine that even covers the same basic portfolio of cars as Autocar and Motor." But English magazines of the era were dry and boring.

"Elaine admired the New Yorker magazine immensely and the New Yorker became their model. Their Road & Track combined the subject matter of English car magazines with the sly wit and understated elegance of the New Yorker. It was a brilliant plan, and it resulted in a brilliantly successful magazine."

Elaine Bond ran the business end of the magazine while John handled content. His ideas were often offbeat - he once proposed a modern iteration of a Model J Duesenberg powered by two Chevrolet V-8 engines - but he was often ahead of his time. In 1960, Bond wrote that the Wankel engine - then hyped as the Next Big Thing - would never amount much. With the exception of Mazda, he was right. John reasoned that it was "too dirty," foreseeing the eventual need for reduced tailpipe emissions.

As a young reader in the late 1950s (I bought my first R&T in April, 1957), I thought John R. Bond must have been the coolest car guy on the planet. Being very ignorant about the realities of the independent specialty publishing business, I assumed that he was a multimillionaire mogul who had a stable of exotic Italian sports cars. And a Pegaso with desmodromic valves. (The Bonds did have some desirable machinery later in life - after they had received a big cash windfall by selling R&T.)

I was somewhat dismayed to learn that, by 1972, he was driving an AMC Javelin which was "running beautifully with 62,000 miles on the odometer." His wife Elaine had a yellow MG-TC - a conversation-starter of a car, to be sure. But a real tin can as modern sports cars go. It had the deadly trio of 1930s automotive technology, indifferent British craftsmanship and Lucas electrics.

The Bonds sold the magazine to CBS Publications in 1972 and gradually withdrew from the operation. John and Elaine retired to their hilltop home in Escondido, California which had a magnificent view and a 20-car garage - home to a couple of Ferraris (a 1950 Ferrari 166MM and a 1963 Ferrari 330 America) and a 1934 Railton-Terraplane. Briggs Cunningham was their next-door neighbor.

In July 1990, John R. Bond died of emphysema at age 77. At the time of his death, John had remarried his first wife, Mercedes. Elaine had died in 1984 of a brain tumor.

John R. Bond has been inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame for his unique contributions. He was an inspiration to auto enthusiasts and would-be writers.

We shall not see his like again.


Bond himself did spend decades piddling with his own car design of a miniature Duesenberg with modern mechanics and engineering.  He never finished it, but it was indeed completed in 2011, long after his death.   It has some features in common with the modified 1934 Bentley that James Bond drove in France in Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale.  For tiny, biased engineering reasons I won’t bore you with, I am pleased to state that Bond’s design featured a straight-eight engine as well as coil springs at all four wheels with trailing arm suspension.  This vehicle is indeed the mind of John R. Bond brought to life.  See:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ace Auto Writer Tom McCahill

Thomas Jay McCahill III (1907–1975) was an automotive journalist, born the grandson of a wealthy attorney in Larchmont, ;New York. McCahill graduated from Yale University with a degree in fine arts. (McCahill's father had been a football all-American at Yale). He is credited with, amongst other things, the creation of the "0 to 60" acceleration measurement now universally accepted in automotive testing. He became a salesman for Marmon and in the mid-1930s operated dealerships in Manhattan and Palm Springs, featuring Rolls Royce, Jaguar and other high-line luxury cars. The depression and his father's alcoholism wiped out his family's fortune.

Journalist and Automotive Critic

After graduating from Yale, McCahill managed and later owned Murray's Garage in New York City. During the war he wrote articles on a variety of subjects for magazines such as Popular Science, Reader’s Digest and Mechanix Illustrated Magazine ("M.I."). Hitting on the idea that an auto-starved post-wartime public might be interested in articles on new cars, he sold the concept to M.I. in February 1946, first reporting on his own 1946 Ford. His opinions were fearless and this endeared him to some in the automotive world but created enemies too. Ever the sportsman—at six foot two and 250 pounds—he once fought off goons hired by (as was believed at the time) General Motors. It is alleged that he sent two to hospital and the third running.

McCahill was a personal friend of Walter P. Chrysler and appreciated the handling and performance characteristics of Chrysler Corporation cars in the late 1950s and 1960s, which included many advanced engineering features such as front torsion-bar suspensions (combined with rear multi-leaf springs) for flatter cornering, powerful V8 engine options across the board and positive-shifting three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. In a 1959 road test of the Plymouth Sport Fury (which he referred to as the "Sports Fury"), he claimed that the torsion bar suspensions were the finest in America. Few European sedans, said McCahill, could match the handling performance of the Plymouth.

On the other hand, many of McCahill's opinions about vehicles were far less favourable. For example, he reported in a 1949 road test that the new Dodge, with its semi-automatic transmission, was a "dog". He considered early 1950s Chevrolets mundane and utilitarian.

His Prose

McCahill frequently used extreme metaphors and similies in his prose. For example, in M.I. he described the AC Cobra as "hairier than a Borneo gorilla in a raccoon suit". (McCahill was apparently unconcerned about the fact that gorillas live only in Africa, not in Borneo). He proclaimed the ride of a 1957 Pontiac to be as "smooth as a prom queen's thighs".


In 1952 McCahill entered his own Jaguar Mark VII sedan in the Daytona Beach NASCAR speed trials and won in the Sedan class. Each year he attended and reported on world-renowned speed events, especially the Le Mans 24 Hour in France. He purchased the first Thunderbird built and raced it successfully in the 1955 Daytona speed trials. The Tom McCahill trophy was named for him. As director of the yearly speed trials at Daytona Beach, he was responsible for overseeing the rules as well as the safety of the drivers and spectators. He was a personal friend of Briggs Cunningham and drove the fastest cars in the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Power Grab by Dick Morris

Introduction by the Blog Author

Dick Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann, have a new book out in print, Power Grab.  It’s about Obama’s ideology and desire to see a future America of a single party.  Here is Amazon’s description, followed by an editorial review and then two reader reviews.

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New York Times best-selling authors Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, in their upcoming release by Humanix Books, contend that President Obama is at war with the Constitution and its provisions that provide for checks and balances.

President Obama s style of leadership is proof that he is willing to use desperate measures. In Power Grab, Morris and McGann assert that Obama has embarked on an outrageous and sweeping scheme to decisively and illegally grab power away from Congress, the Courts, and the States to appropriate it to himself.

Ultimately, under the guise of practicality, the President of the United States has become utterly intolerant and unquestionably dictatorial. He rules on his own by executive fiat and few, if any, in Congress protest.

A former presidential advisor to Bill Clinton, Dick Morris argues that Obama has gone well beyond any previous president in extending executive power. He has defied the will of our forefathers, stepped over states rights, and systematically brushed aside explicit laws with little outrage from other branches of government.

In Power Grab, Morris and McGann say that Obama has grown even more bold in his acquisition of power after seeing so little opposition. And he has no plans to stop anytime soon, as the authors flawlessly illustrate in their in-depth analysis of his increasingly brazen behavior.

Morris and McGann lay out a plan to stop Obama s abuse of power. They say President Obama s critics, and even those who sympathize with his political views but share a deep respect for the Constitution, can join together to stop the most significant, overreaching executive power ever.

Power Grab is sure to leave the reader without any doubt as to just how pervasive his usurpation of Congressional power has become.

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Editorial Review

I read Power Grab and couldn't put it down. Dick Morris thoroughly reveals President Obama's hidden agenda. This book is a must-read for all Americans. –Dr. Ben Carson, former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins [himself a potential 2016 Presidential candidate]

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Reader Reviews

5 out of 5 stars

By the truth will set you free on September 26, 2014

Dick Morris has nailed this president and exposes him for what his true intentions are. People criticized Limbaugh for saying he wanted O'bama to fail, I knew exactly what he meant, it's because Rush knew then what Dick has put in this book. The scary thing for me is when you read the comments by those who gave this book 1 star, they are writing that we are the sheeple or zombies, it's like one of those 1970's sci-fi movies where the people have been taking over by an alien host and don't even know it. I'm worried for America because of these low information voters, have you seen Waters World - these college kids are walking / talking morons who think that Leonardo 'Dah-Crapio' is a climate scientist for god sake but they don't know who the Vice President of the US is. We have so many morons now that I actually think O'bama and his ilk will get away with turning us into this one part nation beholden to the government for their livelihood and those stupid enough to break their backs working to try and make an honest living will have to fork over more and more of our money or risk being audited by the IRS or worse. We are heading in a very bad place unless people wake up in this country. I have liberal friends of mine who are very smart and when I asked them could the US have become the strongest and greatest nation on earth if we started out the country the way in which they would like to transform America, to be a liberal progressive socialist country where working is optional, foodstamps for all, healthcare for all, open borders for all and they don't know how to answer that question, so I ask them how can that possibly work, then, long term? Again no answer.

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5 out of 5 stars

What you need to know to vote!

October 9, 2014 by james t holtzinger

Dick Morris pulls no punches writing about the Republicans or the Democrats. He uncovers programs, legislation, who started them and why. He is also covers where President Barry is going with his Executive Orders and why. He talks about all the cover ups, scandals and the why behind them. He writes all about the power grabs and goes into depth explaining them. If you like keeping up with the political scene, which all of us should, this book clarifies a lot of things not verbalized or explained on the news.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Critique of Socialism

What Is Left of Socialism

Leszek Kolakowski

First Things (October 2002), ppg. 42-46

Karl Marx—-a powerful mind, a very learned man, and a good German writer—died 119 years ago. He lived in the age of steam; never in his life did he see a car, a telephone, or an electric light, to say nothing of later technological devices. His admirers and followers used to say and some keep saying: it doesn’t matter, his teaching is still perfectly relevant to our time because the system he analyzed and attacked—capitalism—is still here. That Marx is worth reading is certain. The question is, however: Does his theory truly explain anything in our world and does it provide a ground for any predictions? The answer is, No. Another question is whether or not his theories were useful at one time. The answer is, obviously, Yes: they operated successfully as a set of slogans that were supposed to justify and glorify communism and the slavery that inevitably goes along with it.

When we ask what those theories explain or what Marx discovered, we may ask only about ideas that were specific to him, and not commonsense banalities. We should not make a laughingstock out of Marx by attributing to him the discovery that in all non-primitive societies there are social groups or classes having conflicting interests that lead them to fight with one another; this was known to ancient historians. Marx himself did not pretend to have made this kind of discovery; as he wrote in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in 1852, he had not discovered the class struggle but rather had proved that it leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in turn leads ultimately to the abolition of classes. It is impossible to say where and how he “proved” this grandiose claim in his pre-1852 writings. To “explain” something means to subsume events or processes under laws; but “laws” in the Marxist sense are not the same as laws in the natural sciences, where they are understood as formulas stating that in well-defined conditions, well-defined phenomena always occur. What Marx called “laws” are rather historical tendencies. There is thus no clear-cut distinction in his theories between explanation and prophecy. Besides, he believed that the meaning of both past and present may be understood only by reference to the future, of which he claimed to have knowledge. Hence, for Marx, only what does not (yet) exist can explain what does exist. But it should be added that for Marx the future does exist, in a peculiar, Hegelian manner, even though it is unknowable.

All of Marx’s important prophecies, however, have turned out to be false. First, he predicted growing class polarization and the disappearance of the middle class in societies based on a market economy. Karl Kautsky rightly stressed that if this prediction were wrong, the entire Marxist theory would be in ruins. It is clear that this prediction has proved to be wrong; rather, the opposite is the case. The middle classes are growing, whereas the working class in the sense Marx meant it has been dwindling in capitalist societies in the midst of technological progress.

Second, he predicted not only the relative but also the absolute impoverishment of the working class. This prediction was already wrong in his lifetime. As a matter of fact, it should be noticed that the author of Capital updated in the second edition various statistics and figures but not those relating to workers’ wages; those figures, if updated, would have contradicted his theory. Not even the most doctrinaire Marxists have tried to cling to this obviously false prediction in recent decades.

Third, and most importantly, Marx’s theory predicted the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. Such a revolution has never occurred anywhere. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and land for peasants. There is no need to mention that these slogans were to be subsequently turned into their opposite. What in the twentieth century perhaps comes closest to the working class revolution were the events in Poland of 1980-81: the revolutionary movement of industrial workers (very strongly supported by the intelligentsia) against the exploiters, that is to say, the state. And this solitary example of a working class revolution (if even this may be counted) was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.

In the fourth place, one must mention Marx’s prediction concerning the inevitable fall of the profit rate, a process that was supposed to lead ultimately to the collapse of the capitalist economy. Not unlike the others, this prediction proved to be simply wrong. Even according to Marx’s theory, this could not be an inevitably operating regularity, because the same technical development that lowers the part of the variable capital in production costs is supposed to lower the value of the constant capitaý. Therefore the profit rate might remain stable or increase even if what Marx called “living labor” declines for a given unit of output. And even if this “law” were true, the mechanism whereby its operation would cause the decline and demise of capitalism is inconceivable, since the collapse of the profit rate can very well occur in conditions in which the absolute amount of profit is growing. This was noticed, for what it’s worth, by Rosa Luxemburg, who invented a theory of her own about the inescapable collapse of capitalism, which proved to be no less wrong.

The fifth tenet of Marxism that has turned out to be erroneous is the prediction that the market will hamper technical progress. The exact opposite has quite obviously proved to be the case. Market economies have been shown to be extremely efficient in stimulating technological progress, whereas “real socialism” turned out to be technologically stagnating. Since it is undeniable that the market has created the greatest abundance ever known in human history, some neo-Marxists have felt compelled to change their approach. At one time, capitalism appeared horrifying because it produced misery; later, it turned out to be horrifying because it produces such abundance that it kills culture.

Neo-Marxists deplore what is called “consumerism,” or “consumerist society.” In our civilization there are indeed many alarming and deplorable phenomena associated with the growth of consumption. The point is, however, that what we know as the alternative to this civilization is incomparably worse. In all Communist societies, economic reforms (to the extent that they yielded any results at all) led invariably in the same direction: the partial restoration of the market, that is to say, of “capitalism.”

As for the so-called materialist interpretation of history, it has provided us with a number of interesting insights and suggestions, but it has no explanatory value. In its strong, rigid version, for which one may find considerable support in many classical texts, it implies that social development depends entirely on the class struggle that ultimately, through the intermediary of changing “modes of production,” is determined by the technological level of the society in question. It implies, moreover, that law, religion, philosophy, and other elements of culture have no history of their own, since their history is the history of the relations of production. This is an absurd claim, completely lacking in historical support.

If, on the other hand, the theory is taken in a weak, limited sense, it merely says that the history of culture has to be investigated in such a way that one should take account of social struggles and conflicting interests, that political institutions depend in part, at least negatively, on technological development and on social conflicts. This, however, is an uncontroversial banality that was known long before Marx. And so, the materialist interpretation of history is either nonsense or a banality.

Another component of Marx’s theory that lacks explanatory power is his labor theory. Marx made two important additions to the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. First, he stated that in relationships between workers and capital, the labor force, rather than labor, is being sold; secondly, he made a distinction between abstract and concrete labor. Neither of these principles has any empirical basis, and neither is needed to explain crises, competition, and conflict of interest. Crises and economic cycles are understandable by analyzing the movement of prices, and the theory of value adds nothing to our understanding of them. It seems that contemporary economics—as distinct from economical ideologies—would not differ much from what it is today if Marx had never been born.

The tenets I have mentioned are not chosen at random: they constitute the skeleton of the Marxian doctrine. Instead, there is hardly anything in Marxism that provides solutions to the many problems of our time, mainly because they were not urgent a century ago. As for ecological questions, we will find in Marx no more than a few romantic banalities about the unity of man with nature. Demographic problems are completely absent, apart from Marx’s refusal to believe that anything like overpopulation in the absolute sense could ever occur. Neither may the dramatic problems of the Third World find help in his theory. Marx and Engels were strongly Eurocentric; they held other civilizations in contempt, and they praised the progressive effects of colonialism and imperialism (in India, Algeria, and Mexico). What mattered to them was the victory of higher civilization over backward ones; the idea of national determination was to Engels a matter for derision.

What Marxism is the least capable of explaining is the totalitarian socialism that appointed Marx as its prophet. Many Western Marxists used to repeat that socialism such as it existed in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Marxist theory and that, deplorable as it might be, it was best explained by some specific conditions in Russia. If this is the case, how could it have happened that so many people in the nineteenth century, especially the anarchists, predicted fairly exactly what socialism based on Marxist principles would turn out to be—namely, state slavery? Proudhon argued that Marx’s ideal is to make human beings state property. According to Bakunin, Marxian socialism would consist in the rule of the renegades of the ruling class, and it would be based on exploitation and oppression worse than anything previously known. According to the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Edward Abramowski, if communism were by some miracle to win in the moral conditions of contemporary society, it would result in class division and exploitation worse than what existed at the time (because institutional changes do not alter human motivations and moral behavior). Benjamin Tucker said that Marxism knows only one cure for monopolies, and that is a single monopoly.

These predictions were made in the nineteenth century, decades before the Russian Revolution. Were these people clairvoyant? No. Rather, one could make such predictions rationally, and infer from Marxian anticipations the system of socialized serfdom. Iý would be silly to say, of course, that this was the prophet’s intention or that Marxism produced twentieth-century communism as its efficient cause. The victory of Russian communism resulted from a series of extraordinary accidents. But it might be said that Marx’s theory contributed strongly to the emergence of totalitarianism, and that it provided its ideological form. It anticipated the universal nationalization of everything, and thus the nationalization of human beings. To be sure, Marx took froý the Saint-Simonists the slogan that in the future there would be no government, only the administration of things; it did not occur to him, however, that one cannot administer things without employing people for that purpose, so the total administration of things means the total administration of people.

None of this means that Marx’s work is not worth reading; it is a part of European culture and one should read it as one reads many classics. One should read Descartes’ works on physics, but it would be silly to read them as a valid handbook of how to do physics today. Even though in the formerly Communist countries Marx and Marxist texts are now treated with repugnance, this might pass; even there they will eventually be read as remnants of the past. One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy; even Sartre noticed that Marxists are lazy. Indeed, they enjoyed having one key to open all doors, one universally applicable explanation for everything, an instrument that makes it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.

Does the demise of Marxism automatically mean the end of the socialist tradition? Not necessarily. Everything, of course, depends on the meaning of the word “socialism,” and those who still use it as their own profession of faith are usually reluctant to say what they mean, apart from empty generalities. And so some distinctions have to be made. The trouble is that the desire to detect “historical laws” has led many people to conceive of “capitalism” and “socialism” as global “systems,” diametrically opposed to each other. But there is no comparison. Capitalism developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work—that is, man’s greediness allowed to follow its course—whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human acts, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism.

The idea of socialism as an “alternative society” to capitalism amounts to the idea of totalitarian serfdom; the abolition of the market and overall nationalization cannot yield any other result. The belief that one can establish perfect equality by institutional means is no less malignant. The world has known pockets of voluntary equality, practiced in some monasteries and in a handful of secular cooperatives. However, equality under compulsion inevitably requires totalitarian means, and totalitarianism implies extreme inequality, since it entails unequal access to information and power. Nor, practically speaking, is equality in the distribution of material goods possible once power is concentrated in the hands of an uncontrollable oligarchy; this is why nothing remotely close to equality has ever been in existence in socialist countries. The ideal is therefore self-defeating. Why the idea of all-encompassing planning is economically catastrophic we know well, and Friedrich von Hayek’s criticism on this point has been amply borne out by evidence from the experience of all Communist countries without exception. Socialism in this sense means that people are prevented by repression from engaging in any socially useful activity unless on orders from the state.

However, the socialist tradition is rich and differentiated, and it includes many varieties apart from Marxism. Some socialist ideas had indeed a built-in totalitarian tendency. This applies to most of the Renaissance and Enlightenment utopias, as well as to Saint-Simon. Yet some espoused liberal values. Once socialism, which started as an innocent fantasy, became a real political movement, not all of its variants included the idea of an “alternative society,” and of those that did, many did not take the idea seriously.

Everything was clearer before the First World War. Socialists and the left in general wanted not only equal, universal, and obligatory schools, social health service, progressive taxation, and religious tolerance, but also secular education, the abolition of national and racial discrimination, the equality of women, the freedom of press and assembly, the legal regulation of labor conditions, and a social insurance system. They fought against militarism and chauvinism. European socialist leaders of the period of the Second International, such people as Jaurès, Babel, Turati, Vandervelle, and Martov, embodied what was best in European political life.

But everything changed after World War I, when the word “socialism” (and to a large extent “the left”) began to be almost completely monopolized by Leninist-Stalinist socialism, which skewed most of these demands and slogans to mean their opposite. At the same time, most of these “socialist” ideals were in fact realized in democratic countries operating within market economies. Alas, the nontotalitarian socialist movements suffered for decades from ideological inhibitions and lacked the courage to denounce and fight consistently against the most despotic and murderous political system in the world (apart from Nazism). Soviet communism was supposed to be a kind of socialism, after all, and it embellished itself with the internationalist and humanist phraseology inherited from the socialist tradition. Leninist tyranny thus succeeded in stealing the word “socialism,” and the nontotalitarian socialists were complicit in the theft. There were some exceptions to this rule, but not many.

Be that as it may, socialist movements strongly contributed to changing the political landscape for the better. They inspired a number of social reforms without which the contemporary welfare state—which most of us take for granted—would be unthinkable. It would thus be a pity if the collapse of Communist socialism resulted in the demise of the socialist tradition as a whole and the triumph of Social Darwinism as the dominant ideology.

While acknowledging that a perfect society will never be within reach and that people will always find reasons to treat each other badly, we should not discard the concept of “social justice,” much as it might have been ridiculed by Hayek and his followers. Certainly, it cannot be defined in economic terms. One cannot infer from the expression “social justice” the answer to questions about what particular taxation system is desirable and economically sound in given conditions, what social benefits are justified, or what is the best way for rich countries to aid the poorer parts of the world. “Social justice” merely expresses an attitude toward social problems. It is true that more often than not the expression “social justice” is employed by individuals or entire societies who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. But, as the old saying goes, the abuse does not abrogate the use.

In its vagueness, “social justice” resembles the concept of human dignity. It is difficult to define what human dignity is. It is not an organ to be discovered in our body, it is not an empirical notion, but without it we would be unable to answer the simple question: What is wrong with slavery? Likewise, the concept of social justice is vague and it can be used as an ideological tool of totalitarian socialism. Yet the concept is a useful intermediary between an exhortation to charity, to almsgiving, and the concept of distributive justice; it is not the same as distributive justice because it does not necessarily imply reciprocal recognition. Nor is it simply an appeal to charity, because it implies, however imprecisely, that some claims may be deserved. The concept of social justice does not imply that there is such a thing as the common destiny of mankind in which everybody takes part, but it does suggest that the concept of humanity makes sense—not so much as a zoological category but as a moral one.

Without the market, the economy would collapse (in fact, in “real socialism” there is no economy at all, only economic policy). But it is also generally recognized that the market does not automatically solve all pressing human problems. The concept of social justice is needed to justify the belief that there is a “humanity”—and that we must look on other individuals as belonging to this collectivity, toward which we have certain moral duties.

Socialism as a social or moral philosophy was based on the ideal of human brotherhood, which can never be implemented by institutional means. There has never been, and there will never be, an institutional means of making people brothers. Fraternity under compulsion is the most malignant idea devised in modern times; it is a perfect path to totalitarian tyranny. Socialism in this sense is tantamount to a kingdom of lies. This is not reason, however, to scrap the idea of human fraternity. If it is not something that can be effectively achieved by means of social engineering, it is useful as a statement of goals. The socialist idea is dead as the project for an “alternative society.” But as a statement of solidarity with the underdogs and the oppressed, as a motivation to oppose Social Darwinism, as a light that keeps before our eyes something higher than competition and greed—for all of these reasons, socialism, the ideal not the system, still has its uses.

Leszek Kolakowski, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, is the author most recently of The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers (St. Augustine’s, 2002) and Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal (Westview, 1999). This article will appear in his forthcoming book, My Correct Views on Everything, published by St. Augustine’s.

Kolakowski was an important 20th century philosopher, a doctrinaire socialist who became so outspoken he was stripped of his philosophy department chairmanship in 1966 and of his employment and party membership in Poland in 1968.  He spent the last forty years of his life as a visiting professor in the west and became a widely read underground author in Poland.  He died in 2009.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rules for Intellectuals

Being an intellectual means being a researcher willing to seek the truth and argue with others in order to seek agreement about various truths, as argument is a contractual agreement to seek the truth through time-tested standards and moieties.  This art is easily distinguished from quarrelling and bickering. 

The intellectual life therefore consists of weightlifting and circuit training at a very hefty level.  The guidebook for this was written early in the twentieth century by a French monk named A. G. Sertillanges.  And this intellectual road map is back in print.  Here’s a summary from

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The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods Paperback – May 1, 1987

by OP A. G. Sertillanges (Author), Mary Ryan (Translator), SJ James V. Schall (Foreword)

Reader’s Reviews from

By Andrew Barrett on October 27, 2007

1998 reprint of 1987 edition, Catholic University of America Press, 296 pages (of which 260 pages form the main body of the book)
Translated from the French (1934 2nd edition) by Mary Ryan

I came across this unusual book when discussing with my most well read friend the problem of deciding how much to read. He told me this topic was covered in Sertillanges' book and suggested I read it.

The title makes it sound as if the book might be pretentious, but it is not. In the same way that Peter Drucker's superb The Effective Executive is a book for any knowledge worker rather than just for managers, Sertillanges' book should be helpful for anyone who wishes to work using their intellect, rather than just for rarefied intellectuals.

The 1998 reissue (the 1992 date listed on is incorrect) of the 1987 edition has a new forward by James Schall. I think he captures the essence of Sertillanges' book very well:

"At first sight...this is a quaint book. At second sight it is an utterly demanding book."

The subtitle of The Intellectual Life describes its contents well: "Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods". For Sertillanges, intellectual work is not something done in isolation of the rest of a person's life. He believes strongly that in order to do intellectual work to one's capacity, one must order the whole of one's life with this goal in mind. And further, that this requires habits of simplicity, detachment, note taking, memory, writing and more. His book is thus a step-by-step manual that sets out these requirements from the general (virtues, character) to the specific (note-taking, writing).

For most people who are not already members of religious orders (Sertillanges was a Dominican friar) it would be terrifically demanding to follow all of Sertillanges' prescriptions - and involve major changes to one's life. Sertillanges does believe, however, that if one takes care with the rest of one's life then intellectual work can be done satisfactorily using only a couple of hours a day. His book is thus a mixture of the extremely demanding and eminently practical - particularly as much of his advice involves cutting out and eliminating habits that waste time and disturb thought (e.g. pointless correspondence and interactions with people, reading of novels and newspapers).

After reading Ben Franklin's autobiography and Charlie Munger's Poor Charlie's Almanack at the beginning of the year, I have become increasingly aware of the crucial role of habits in determining the outcome of peoples' lives. I was stupid enough to have spent a good proportion of my life testing out the truth of Franklin's maxim: "Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other." I no longer have any doubt that forming good habits - and most especially avoiding forming bad ones - is terribly important. After all, reliability - which Munger considers the single most important determining characteristic for a person's life - is really just another habit.

Sertillanges understood this very well and the importance of habits that facilitate intellectual work is a topic that he brings up repeatedly - and in my view very wisely - in his book:

"One acquires facility in thinking just as one acquires facility in playing the piano, in riding, or painting.... The mind gets into the way of doing what is often demanded of it."

This is not the only resemblance between the advice in Sertillanges' book and that given by Charlie Munger (the best source for his ideas and the most useful book I have ever read is Poor Charlie's Almanack). The importance of a broad base of knowledge, the danger of over-specialisation and the critical importance of only a few ideas in each subject are all covered in this book.

Another striking similarity is Sertillanges' view of the importance of 'contact with genius' and how one goes about acquiring wisdom:

"...the principal profit from reading, at least from reading great works, is not the acquisition of scattered truths, it is the increase of our wisdom."

I was left with somewhat mixed feelings as I progressed through The Intellectual Life. At times Sertillanges' overt religiosity became a little much for me (I am not a religious person) and I found his prescriptions rather daunting.

As I neared the end of the book, however, my view changed and I found myself extremely grateful that Sertillanges' had written this book for us. It was partly because his section on writing answered with great clarity some problems that I had been wrestling with, and partly because I realised that one could simply take what one needed from his book - rather than the whole package.

My difficulty in deciding how much to read remains somewhat unresolved: there is a tension between Sertillanges' advice on reading and that of people like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on investment (my own profession/hobby). Sertillanges advises cutting down on excess (particularly undirected) reading, including, for example, newspapers:

"As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little..."

Buffett, on the other hand, claims to read five newspapers a day and urges us to read everything in sight!

I suspect the different advice is due to the type of work. Firstly, I am not sure that investing is an inherently intellectual pursuit (Buffett has often said that after an average level of intelligence the right temperament is more important). Secondly, intelligent investment is just applied opportunism - and in order to take advantage of opportunities we must first be aware of their existence.

I did not find this an easy review to write. I have had to leave out various topics that I would like to have discussed more fully (such as Sertillanges' excellent advice on writing) and still feel this review may be overlong. However, I believe a review that does not attempt to set its subject firmly in context is of limited use. I'll leave the final word to Sertillanges:

"There are books everywhere and only a few are necessary."

I commend this unusual book to you as one of the necessary ones.

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5 stars
research as a search for truth
By Jerry Dwyer on September 3, 2001

I first read this book as an undergraduate and I have reread it several times over the years. I regard it as one of the most important books that I've read. Why? A. G. Sertillanges does more than provide advice about how to organize your life to have time to think and write, although he does that. He argues that research is a vocation to find the truth -- a great calling no matter how small one's own part. His suggestions for organizing your life follow from the seriousness of this vocation, advice that's far more useful than merely how to get the next paper written.

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4 stars
By Dr. W. G. Covington, Jr. on October 22, 2003

Originally published in French, the translator tells us in the preface that the book was widely distributed in France. The first chapter of the book, per se establishes the premise that the intellectual life is a calling from God, one that is sacred and to be held as a trust.

In the second chapter there is a section on the spirit of prayer, among other topics.

Chapter three develops the paradox of solitude and involvement with other people. An intellectual, as is the case with other creative individuals, does both.

Work is the topic for chapter four and the contexts include: continuity of work, work at night, mornings and evening, and moments of plenitude.

A creative scholar must be open to insights around him.

"Ideas emerge from facts; they also emerge from conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls, the most ordinary books" (p. 73).

The remainder of the book fleshes out this discussion of intellectual work.

A reader would leave this book a more thoughtful person from having been exposed to these ideas. I recommend spending time with this author.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Stephen Booth, Shakespeare scholar

Stephen Booth (born April 20, 1933) is a professor emeritus of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a Marshall Scholar and studied at the University of Cambridge. He first attracted attention with his controversial 1969 essays On the Value of Hamlet and An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets, in which he reread the works in a manner considerably different from contemporary Anglo-American readings. Frank Kermode praised the former essay in the New York Review of Books in 1970 as being worth several full books of Shakespeare studies.

In 1977 he published an edition with "analytic commentary" of the sonnets, again attracting both controversy and praise within the academy for his precision and bold rereadings. In 1983 followed King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, probably his best-known work after the study of the sonnets. His most recent book is 1998's Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson's Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night.

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Book Overview

Why do we value literature so? Many would say for the experience it brings us. But what is it about that experience that makes us treasure certain writings above others? Stephen Booth suggests that the greatest appeal of our most valued works may be that they are, in one way or another, nonsensical. He uses three disparate texts—the Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson's epitaphs on his children, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night—to demonstrate how poetics triumphs over logic in the invigorating mental activity that enriches our experience of reading. Booth presents his case in a book that is crisply playful while at the same time thoroughly analytical. He demonstrates the lapses in logic and the irrational connections in examples of very different types of literature, showing how they come close to incoherence yet maintain for the reader a reliable order and purpose. Ultimately, Booth argues, literature gives us the capacity to cope effortlessly with, and even to transcend, the complicated and demanding mental experiences it generates for us.

This book is in part a witty critique of the trends—old and new—of literary criticism, written by an accomplished and gifted scholar. But it is also a testimony to the power of the process of reading itself. Precious Nonsense is certain to bring pleasure to anyone interested in language and its beguiling possibilities.

Editorial Review

"Booth highlights the linguistic complications, illogical assertions, and incongruous imagery that distinguish, but enrich, disparate texts: the Gettysburg Address, poetic epitaphs by Ben Jonson on his children, and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night. . . . [Booth] argues that the illogic, irrationality, and incongruity (or "nonsense") in literature, which the mind tends to elide into superficial understanding, are really the most meaningful cruxes of the text."  --Choice

Customer Review

By Norman Rabkin

Honesty requires a disclaimer. Booth is a friend and colleague. But I would react similarly if I didn't know the author. If there were six stars, I would award them to Precious Nonsense. Booth takes familiar texts that seem all too clear and obvious and makes us see a multitude of things going on beneath their surfaces. His discoveries are startling and sometimes you want to argue with him, but because he puts his cards on the table he makes argument possible. What he shows demonstrates the difference between great prose and verse and ordinary writing, and reveals the similarity between the operation of literary art and that of music. Booth is phenomenally sensitive and deeply learned, and he has a terrific memory. A bonus is his style: he , in making us see how much goes on in such art that we are never as clear, conversational, and often funny.  This is a revolutionary book.

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Footnote by the Blog Author

There’s a brilliant, fascinating article about Booth and Shakespeare at: