If You Don’t Read Books…

Is the current bloodshed in Syria the final battle of the First World War; or the first battle of the Third? And related to that, why is the House of Saud the center of the Arab world, and not the Hashemite Kingdom descendant from the Sharif of Mecca? Do you know where the word ‘assassin’ comes from, and why a death cult hidden in a fortress high in the Persian mountains caused the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the sacking of the House of Wisdom and the end of the Islamic Golden Age? Is Iran to be trusted, or are they engaged in Kitman with the United States, with us playing the role of the “miserable blind man shut off from the true path whose existence (we) do not suspect?” Why does socialism always fail, in spite of making us feel so good; and why do intellectuals ignore this? What is Austrian economics; and why are the “Austrians” never part of macro-economic syllabi? And what were Hugo Chavez’s hemispheric plans and how were they inspired by a 200 year old legend?

If you don’t read books, you won’t know.

That is the contention of Peggy Noonan’s commencement address at Catholic University in Washington DC. “History is human,” Noonan says in her eloquent, folksy fashion. “History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting – sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly – in real time.”

True. But, of course this begs the more important question – why do you need to know? Wouldn’t we all be just as happy watching episodes of “Two and a Half Men” with a pint of ice-cream before going to bed? Noonan’s answer, “If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply. If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.” Because, “…all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.”


The truth of the matter is that modern universities are not in the business of leader-making. Our leaders these days come from other places, or other times; because our institutions of higher learning have turned their energy to licensing managers to serve as the officers of our managerial oligarchy. According to Patrick Dennan, students these days are “…the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.” But why, why are our ivory towers these days busy molding their charges into perfect “know-nothings”; devoid of opinion and culture and preference and innovation and curiosity? The answer is because we are preparing our young men and women to slip seamlessly into the massive bureaucracies of our colossal planned world. We are training them to receive the highest marks from the human resources department; for outstanding “360 degree” reviews and to have the perfect habits necessary to be highly effective. In managerial bureaucracies there are no leaders, because there is no need for leadership. Inertia will do; momentum – because the direction is no longer in doubt, at least so say the elites. Its effective managing we need. The inhabitants of “the end of history” can be found sharply dressed in perfectly pressed suits sitting for just the right amount of time in their pristine cubicles before lunch, eating a turkey wrap in their immaculate cafeterias.

My main contention, no offense to Peggy, is that we all need to stop telling the “know-nothings” that sitting anxiously through four years of “safe space” discussions and “anti-racist sit-ins” entitles them to lead. We must tell them the truth – at best they will be the next generation of managers; for that is the certification to which they are preparing. Leave the expectation to leadership to those who are willing to say uncomfortable things and think uncomfortable thoughts – to be sure many of which are, indeed, found in books.

So my suggestion, not that anybody should care. Read books – not because you want to be a leader, but because you want to understand, to make common cause with the world around you. Because you can’t really feel without having read Robert Frost. You can’t truly love without knowing Emily Dickinson. You can’t really sorrow ignorant of Poe. And you can’t really believe without reading the Bible. Read because you have a natural curiosity – because you do not accept the version of things you are given by other know-nothings on the assembly-line of your education. Because enlightenment is found along the rolling road of wonder, a road paved by words in print upon a sea of white. Because nothing is new under the sun; and because castles are layers upon layers upon layers of stories, like Peggy says, of humans. Blood and sweat and the acrid stench of fear; violence and defeat and victory – from those who were not content to be managers.

Then, whether you lead or not, your lives will be enriched by the only hunger that becomes more voracious the more you feed it. The hunger to know.


An Old Library in Timbuktu

No, you probably won’t be leaders. You won’t be writers either – that requires way too much failure and self-doubt than the know-nothing’s can muster. But you might very well be line managers for the new world order. If you read books – you’ll begin to understand why.

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The Caveman and the Boorish

I don’t have Cable TV – or subscription TV of any sorts. Overseas, as we are, we make do with Netflix. So to a certain extent I am fortuitous to be somewhat sheltered from the boorish: “Nightly News” I think they used to call it.

I do have social media – Facebook and Twitter; although I’ve found myself going on them less and less. It’s a little hard not to – stuck as I am constantly in a faraway land, they are effective tools to stay connected with family and friends. But I don’t scroll anymore, you know that weird little finger spasm up, up, up as the clock ticks by – Facebook has become boorish; people have become boorish, haven’t they? Boorish, like the way the English used to mean it, lip turned up. Soren Kierkegaard said it best, “I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this”, followed quickly by the wisdom of Voltaire “The secret of being a bore… is to tell everything”.

Cue politics.

Have you noticed that everything in our lives is getting better… except for politics, which is in turn making everything worse? Our computers are faster, our diets are better, our entertainment is more varied. There are more books being published; more options for shopping (Farmers markets, Whole Foods or that awesome Mexican Grocery called Ranch Market in downtown Phoenix). Movies are getting more sophisticated – we can still watch “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” if we want; but now we can temper that with Amelie or Timbuktu.

Even the world over – more people have access to entertainment, poverty has been halved and places like Bollywood and Nollywood are making new movies and creating new opportunities. Even where there are problems like food crises, these are man-made created by the boorish for political reasons, and not some Malthusian disaster we were warned about. Hills are being reforested, beaches are being better protected. We may even be slowing the mass slaughter of the species called the 1980s. But politics – bitter and angry; taking everything we’re attaining, and turning it upside down. I write a lot about Venezuela – those few of you unfortunate enough to read me frequently know quite well. Politics is what ruined that country – Hugo Chavez in the soup and slapped on the side of rice bags and in hours-long television takeovers: now HE was boorish; marching, marching and more marching, boorish rivers of red to the closest voting booth to vote, and vote, and vote again. Families turned against each other; businesses going under; boycotts enacted; money wasted.

And what was all the politicking about? We have been told that politics, that process by which we choose upon who to bestow that most perilous right of holding a gun against us, is important because we must make collective decisions to make our lives better. I could sort of buy that, if it were true. But those things are not exciting or controversial – where parking meters should be installed, how many lanes a road should have, how many police officers to deploy at a parade. What kind of school system makes for a more educated citizenry. “Public Administration” this is often called – and it’s boring (not boorish, do not mistake me).

So what are people fighting about? Turns out everything – because it’s tribal now; that’s what politics has descended into. The possession of a blunt object with which to beat random strangers as we walk down the street or troll their social media accounts. That’s what happened in Venezuela – they took a messy and uneven democracy where people spent their weekends at the beach and partying in night clubs and poisoned everybody – making them all boorish.

So – we need to stop.

My advice, such as it is – understanding I’ve probably bored you too – I’ve taken from Harlan Coben, “When I’m writing (or in our case posting), what I pretend subconsciously is that we’re cavemen, we’re sitting around the fire, and I’m telling you stories. If I bore you, you’re probably going to pick up a big club and hit me over the head.”



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Politeness and our Struggling Democracy

A few years ago, on what is popularly called our “baby-moon” (that special trip you take with your wife before the hurricane descends in the form of a squealing, squeaking, energetic little boy who these days sits at the dinner table fighting with me over what a “map” should look like and what “X” should mark), my wife and I left our bustling capital to drive into the interior of Virginia. Monticello – to walk through the house where Jefferson slept. “He would read all morning, eat lunch with three glasses of wine, play with his grandchildren all afternoon and then read again all evening,” the tour-guide said. Montpelier, that little room on the second floor where Madison wrote the constitution, “He asked for every book available on how to organize society; starting with ancient Greece and moving forward through time, learning from the past and the lessons given to us by history.”

It was summer, the birds were flitting through the trees; the morning mists clung to the hills and nestled in the valleys where the founders and framers walked together unpretentiously. There’s a favorite local story about how Jefferson hitchhiked with a farmer one warm summer night, discussing the country, without the man knowing he’d hosted the president until later. As we walked through the gardens, immersing ourselves in the past, our past, we found the old plantations were musty and worn from use and time; but still noble and elegant and exuding quiet dignity of a time when we had respect, not contempt, for each other – friend and foe alike. ‘Politeness’, as Jefferson once told his nephew, is ‘artificial good humor’ – that which kicks in with the muscle memory of the well-bred when amiability flags.


What struck me was how connected those men of old were to the currents of their times; even as their expansive Virginia estates seem isolated, even today – lost in space and time somewhere on the edge of it all. Imagine what they must have felt like two-hundred years ago when a trip from Washington D.C. took days, not hours? When knowledge that was sought from Paris or London was brought on boats over an ocean, taking weeks – where reading was something that was done in four hour chunks beside the fire, not four minute intervals on an iPhone waiting for the metro? When people thought in poems and prose, not in 400 word opeds?

Walking through the past, that summer which feels so long ago now, was a heady experience for me – engaged as I was in the most consequential of contests – a presidential campaign. Big dinners with Mitt Romney at the Army Navy club; policy papers and documents and working groups – we were going to fix the world, we were going to change everything. We were going to put it right. Because it’s a great responsibility, the mantle of leadership is. Peggy Noonan just wrote, in her singular fashion, an article that captures some of this – although I might widen her target. “Democracy is not your plaything” she writes, and it’s true. What we are fighting over now, in the most adolescent of fashions, is nevertheless the most sacred trust of all; it’s the future for my little boy, the country he will grow up in, the old thoughts he will hold in his imagination as he too walks through musty memories of when our nation had gravitas and amazing men were designing the boldest and most successful experiment in world history.

I’ve never really mourned the 2012 outcome; while victory floats upon a cushion of celebration and reflection, a loss is an existential affair that presages hardship. At some point, I suppose – when it’s all over for me, I’ll think about it; and write about it. These days my little boy occupies my time, as does the business of fighting our nations enemies – which we do regardless of who sits behind a polished desk in a tired old mansion built atop a swamp. But if I were asked, which I was not, I would say that what 2012 represented for me was the death of dignity.

Because it was dignity they took from us – cheap hits by those who only cared about winning. And that sort of seems to have presaged the current “circus”, as Peggy calls it, hasn’t it? I wonder what Jefferson would have thought of our current state of affairs, holding with tremendous responsibility as he did that fragile flame in his open palms lest he inadvertently deprive it of oxygen and kill it? Probably something civil like, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

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A House Divided

Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Remember that? The civil war was upon us, two dramatically different views of the way to live our lives as Americans – of what rights meant – about what our economy should look like. How the government should behave. Mutually exclusive, one side had to win – the only time in our history that was the case. All the other moments – Vietnam and Civil Rights and Universal Suffrage – were just that, moments. Not existential fights about national survival but instead ways of organizing ourselves and treating each other in a country of laws run by a messy lot like humanity. About living up to our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.


Which, I suppose, is why I’m a little baffled at America these days. The media, the elites, the entitled – joined by the managers in our managerial oligarchy – those who lost a periodic election have embarked upon a strategy of annihilation. It seems that they would embrace national failure, even if it means their own destruction. Their weapon of choice? Poison. Poisoning the well is; “a rhetorical technique and logical fallacy that uses the association of negative emotions to distract a subject from actual evidence in an argument. Poisoning the well is an appeal to hate.”

Sound familiar?

Of course poisoning the well is dangerous – a so called “nuclear option” for public behavior because once the well has been poisoned, it continues to be radioactive for all who would use it – friend and foe alike. Argument, temperament, reason, balance, objectivity, compassion – all these have been jettisoned in an attempt to destroy. 24 hour news cycles all primed and aimed and fired, but at who? Turns out, eventually, at themselves. Ayn Rand said in Atlas Shrugged, “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

A lie – because the fact is things are going pretty well these days. The Supreme Court is whole – and with a remarkable, honest and gentle addition; Assad will think twice about using chemicals again; the economy is booming (yes, it has everything to do with confidence and deregulation); jobs are up, jobless claims are down; companies are reinvesting in the United States (it’s about encouragement); the healthcare challenges of a hastily passed and un-debated law are on the way to being addressed; illegal immigration is way down (no, nothing to do with a wall. Yes, everything to do with application of the rule of law). ISIS is being pushed out of Mosul. And the federal government’s thought war against half of its citizens is over. We should all shrug and go grab a beer, right?!

So why the bitterness, the hate? I return to the article “The Urban Archipelago”, the ‘progressive’ manifesto. “We no longer have to concern ourselves with the survival of the family farm, nor do we have to concern ourselves with saving fragile suburban economies from collapse. They’re against us; we’re against them. This is a war.” An appeal to hate, if there ever was one. Lies, because they require no nuance, no understanding – no feeling, only action.

A house divided. Of course, the ‘liars’ don’t see this, because as Rand says, they have “made that person (to whom they lie) their master” and are now wholly invested in those lies, lest they should prove to be just that – and they become powerless. It’s a scary place to be, no wonder they fret so publicly and transparently. They are the slaves of the world.

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Rage Against the Dying

I’ve always thought that the best writers were those with too much money, or none at all. Both conditions leave the aspiring novelists and poets with the audacity to not give a two-penny damn about what others are saying or thinking. But this constricting, insufferable middle class life that we have all been forced into, willing or not; that I suppose is the real tragedy. The angry fight not against epic enemies or demons of the written word hiding in the rafters of ancient hallowed halls – but bugs in the carpet and a mortgage that ticks down upon you in regular unending rigidity like Chinese water torture. Belts pushed back from hole to hole, fighting the entropy – one hour in the gym becomes two becomes four.

I read often the works of the great authors. To be sure, great authors are those who are still read 100 years after their publication; that is the definition of a classic. Those writers did not know they would be great – but they still wrote. I wonder if they too suffered the pangs of futility, the anger at life that seeks to make the mundane out of the majestic; a marvelous tree used to hang threadbare laundry, a mighty racing horse pulling a plow.

Who knows…

I’m reading right now “Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I find it one of his most readable books: and if it is to be believed, he’s one who persevered through the frustration. To keep writing, while your country collapses around; assassinations and wars. Poverty. Provincial – that is Gabo’s writing, but it works for him. We like to read stories about Macondo, though stories about Gary Indiana do not find a place in our imaginations. Wars in Colombia – those work, exotic and foreign. I read once about the life of W. Somerset Maugham, though he never wrote an autobiography. He flippantly mentions, that “he tried his hand at writing” and “after his first novel was a hit of sorts, he became a writer.” I wonder if it was indeed that easy? It is said of Joseph Conrad that he hated writing – that he sweated out the agony of his novels word by word. Marx let half his children starve.


Dylan Thomas once wrote, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, because their words had forked no lightning they do not go gentle into that good night.” It is said he was writing about death – “Rage against the dying of the light”. I’m not so sure, I often wonder if he wasn’t talking instead about something worse than death – that condition where one is still alive despite that the light inside no longer illuminates. “You know when you come across one of those empty shell people, and you think ‘What the hell happened to you?’” Yes, an Under the Tuscan Sun quote – one of my favorite movies of all times. Because it’s about a writer. And it’s about a dreamer who is almost destroyed. And it’s about somebody who finally reminds herself that her life is actually her own – and she, finally, begins to rage.

Lives of great significance can be parochial too – they don’t ever tell you that, do they? A cubicle looks the same – though it’s beset by violence. The piles of paper, filed in triplicate, do not change though they are recording the names of those starving to death or dying at the hands of a great evil. An antiseptic world, that is the heritage bequeathed to us by those whom the rage has left, not in an explosion but in a frustrated shrug of lethargy – the empty shell people.

Toilet bowls and diapers and an exhausted hour of television – then sleep, to do it all over again. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Castles, Civilizations and the Know-Nothings

Why do we hold the ancients so tightly in our imaginations?

Civilization, I suppose. Because they are not built all at once: the brilliant dream of a tyrant, the epic ambitions of an emperor king. Plans of individual men – no matter how powerful – will fall away if they hold no place in the imaginations of their people. Genghis Khan seated upon a throne of fur under a camel skin tent is remembered no more, despite the flashing reach of his armies. No, civilizations are built in layers, by the strength of the backs and the immense acts of discipline of successive generations of men adding their own strength and texture and character to the work of others.

A castle.


Eltz Castle, Outside Frankfurt – Germany

Castles are built like that – over centuries. Each level impregnated by the environments, the times; rains whipped around by the winds, a drought, black earth rich with minerals – soot from a fire and blood from an attack. It starts small – humble sometimes. A few rooms – a simple roof. Then the castle expands as the family grows, rising upwards responding to the needs of new children, new wives brought home in happiness and celebration, new wealth. It ebbs and flows with the fates of the family. Kitchens added, innovations adopted; hostility brings walls and ramparts and moats. Poverty cloisters halls too cold to heat, and the once-grand furniture fills with termites and mice.

A castle is the visual eternal representation of Europe’s civilizations, reminding us of when it all began and the risks taken to bring us to where we are. Of war and aggression: politics and power. Often times of violence – though the violence is not the mortar of the civilization any more than it is the cement of castles. The perpetual search for peace and protection, of our property and our family and our futures – that is what a castle represents.

So why then do many people want to deny us our past? Why does the brutishness of our ancestors offend so? And why do the stories of tremendous resilience, of family and purpose and fight and faith offend them? We are told that because they were not perfect – that they held prejudice in their hearts or often misbehaved – we are not to look to them; certainly not as a means to better understand ourselves. As if we are not even now brutish and vile – albeit in different ways. As if the progress we have been sold, so carefully scraped of all vestiges of the past, is even healthy – even progress at all really, instead of another dark age served to us by know-nothings.

How can it be? All journeys are measured from their starting points. And all paths are straightened only by looking back at our “great cloud of witnesses” for signals. Taking that from us only makes our life shallower, narrower like a canyon in which we can neither see in front, behind or above. Caught in the eternal bewilderment of now.

I for one love the castles – walking through them, imagining how life had been and reveling at the ability of some things to endure despite the constant erosion of the levelers. And as I walk through the old buildings that hum with past, I feel sorry for those who – looking at a spontaneous civilization see only their own petty predilections.

That must be the real brutish place.

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The King of Lost Places

Do you ever want to fit in? To become lost in a crowd? To engender no interest in your fellow man? The other morning I was sitting in a vacant plaza in Frankfurt eating a croissant and drinking a cappuccino from a bakery that was not yet open – although it was already morning. All around me were the stacked chairs, folded umbrellas and discarded bottles and waste that served as a final witness to what must have been a May Day celebration in true German fashion.

Out of nowhere a huge white bus slid noisily to a stop on the road behind me, breaks sighing, and offloaded a gaggle of Chinese. A herd. A flock. Whatever: why do they always seem to travel thus?

Never mind.

As I was sitting there engrossed in my book – “Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabo (review forthcoming), one of the Chinese tourists stopped to snap a picture of me. Confusion. I certainly do not stand out – at least not here. A great joy of mine is to have Germans constantly addressing me in German – though I don’t speak a word. Another European descended man reading a book with a coffee on a chilly Frankfurt morning. Nothing to see here – but I suppose we are now the tourist attractions for the nouveau tourists. Not that I like it – I stand out too frequently to be flattered at the rupture of my anonymity in a place that should not see me.

Let me explain. I am the king of lost places. Nowhere-land. The triangular mud minarets of Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, in front of that silent sandy plaza that used to host a university, back when life in Timbuktu had significance. A Catholic seminary converted into a hostel in the old Belgian administrative center called Lubero tucked in the highlands of eastern Congo – blue helmets and razor wire waiting to accept the genocidaire; monsters who had decided upon the extinguishing of another race. Eating escargot and drinking warm beer with the priests. The cement and zinc-roofed house of a witch in a village in northern Nicaragua, sitting in front of her on a rocking chair imploring her to release the sick under her spell so I could take them for hospital care.

Lost places.


Niger River, Bamako Mali

I recently was wasting time filling out one of those little surveys on Facebook – “The Top 100 Places You’ve Been” – to see my ranking. Comparing myself to others in order to feel bad or superior – as if the breadth of other people’s wanderings somehow defines the measure of my own existence. Places you’ve all heard of: Paris, New York, Machu Picchu, Grand Canyon, Great Wall. Frankfurt where ambulant Chinese snap pictures of you. But there’s no Facebook pop-survey of lost places – of which I am king.

I find some comfort in that. The safe classes flitting from home to airport to hotel to their air conditioned busses, plastic wine glasses in hand to experience the frequently seen. To tell their neighbors they too have strolled the Champs Elise. They too have seen Hemingway’s park. Bubbles caught upon the winds taken only where everybody else is going.

We kings of lost places think that somewhat tedious. Although I love a castle as much as the next guy, we sort of prefer a village on a cliff in Spain where there’s a family that makes pottery – and have been doing it, passing the tradition from father to son since Jesus walked the earth. Except their kids don’t want to make pottery in poverty anymore. Tragedy… Or a 400 year-old church in a lost escarpment in the Andes just south of Bolivia where an aged monk with a foot-long iron key opens the creaking door into a sanctuary that was at the very edge of Spanish dominion – when they had dominion. To convert the unfaithful, ambassadors from a time when church and state were comingled.

It is these places that resonate with past – but not loudly, more in the form of a quiet hum – where we feel most found.

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