August 13, 2008

Selections from Recent Reads  Or Why's My Kindle So Heavy?

From Pete Hamill's "My Manhattan":
The creators of the American Yiddish theater also provided what earlier entertainers had given to the Irish and the Germans: the immense gift of laughter. They used gags, skits, slapstick, and wit to make fun of one another. Romanians made fun of Hungarians. Both made fun of Poles. All made fun of Russians. They skewered the greenhorns, the pompous nouveau rich, the greedy landlords, the humorless goyim, the corrupt politicians; and they added something else, an attitude that forever shifted the New York mind: irony.

That is, they made jokes out of the difference between what America promised and what America actually delivered. Irony remains the essence of American humor to this day. They were also triumphantly eclectic. The creators of the Yiddish theater made their own versions of what they saw the Irish doing in the rowdy theaters of the nearby Bowery.
...

The Gilded Age had begun. Old New York sniffed. The new people, to Knickerbocker noses, smelled crude, ill-mannered, ignorant about the refinements of life. They showed far too much, uh, energy. They bought art by the crate. They failed to distinguish between forks at dinner. They preferred fat slabs of beef and mashed potatoes to the intricate delicacies of Delmonico’s. But the old Knickerbockers could count. Their own fortunes were dwindling. They had given their faith to the monotheistic god of property, and that god was now failing them. They would buy houses of summer refuge in Saratoga or Newport, if only they could afford them. Why should some robber baron peddle his homely daughter to an impoverished English duke?There were, after all, many beautiful young Knickerbocker women who could begin the process of civilizing these rich new American men. Slowly, an exchange was made. The Knickerbockers began to merge with the new money, exchanging bloodlines and manners for a share of the new wealth.
Liked the humor of the dog taking the man for a walk in this "Netherland" (by Joseph O'Neill) snippet:
On my floor there lived an octogenarian person of indeterminate gender—it took a month of surreptitious scrutiny before I’d satisfied myself she was a woman—who told me, by way of warning and reassurance, that she carried a gun and would kick the ass of anybody who made trouble on our floor. There was also an old and very sick black gentleman (now dead), apparently a legendary maker of prints and lithographs. There was a family with three young boys who ran wild in the hallways with tricycles and balls and trains. There was an unexplained Finn. There was a pit bull that never went out without a panting, menacing furniture dealer in tow. There was a Croatian woman, said to be a famous nightlife personality, and there was a revered playwright and librettist, whom it almost interested that I knew a little Greek and who introduced me to Arthur Miller in the elevator. There was a girl with gothic makeup who babysat and walked dogs. All of them were friendly to me, the crank in the suit and tie.
From George Will's latest book:
Matthew Arnold, for example, was a fastidious social critic and hence an accomplished complainer. When he died, an acquaintance (Robert Louis Stevenson, no less) said: “Poor Matt, he’s gone to Heaven, no doubt—but he won’t like God.” American social critics wince when this country, in its rambunctious freedom, falls short, as inevitably it does, of the uniquely high standards it has set for itself. But different things make different people wince, because sensibilities differ. And nearly four decades of observing American politics and culture have convinced me that, in both, sensibility is fundamental. That is, people embrace a conservative (or liberal) agenda or ideology, or develop a liberal (or conservative) political and social philosophy, largely because of something basic to their nature—their temperament, as shaped by education and other experiences. Broadly—very broadly—speaking, there are, I believe, conservative and liberal stances toward life, conservative and liberal assumptions about how history unfolds, and conservative and liberal expectations about how the world works. This is one reason why we have political categories like “liberal” and “conservative”: People tend to cluster. That is one reason why we have political parties. This collection of my writings is not designed to recapitulate the large events of recent years.
From Ross Douthat on Chesterton:
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it's worth pointing out that a great many opponents of slavery in the United States, Abraham Lincoln included, were racists in much the same way that Chesterton was an anti-Semite - possessed of ideas about black inferiority, the necessity of the separation of the races, and so on and so forth, that look morally abominable to us today. But it would be at least mildly peculiar to attack Lincoln, let alone the more strident abolitionists of that time...

But as with Chesterton, the two faces of Solzhenitsyn were really one face: His witness against Communism emerged from the same ground as his critique of Western liberalism. When Hitchens writes that the great dissident's "mixture of attitudes and prejudices puts one in mind more of Dostoyevsky than of Tolstoy," he's absolutely right. But it's not a coincidence that Russia's two most eloquent and prophetic critics of utopian radicalism - Dostoevsky who attacked it in its infancy, and Solzhenitsyn who helped usher it into extinction - were both standing outside Western liberalism, while so many people inside liberalism busied themselves making apologies for terror and mass murder. Which is why Solzhenitsyn, like Chesterton, isn't important despite his deviations from "the current consensus of liberal good will." He's important because of them - because his deviationism allowed him to see things that others were blind to, and because reading past giants who stand foursquare outside the current New York liberal...

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