Thursday, January 19, 2017

Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is the third of five in the Hatchet series, the original of which was Gary Paulsen’s breakout work. I listened to Hatchet when I was a teen, then read it to my kids. Later, we also discovered that Paulsen is a delightful humor writer as well.

Previous reviews of books in the Hatchet series:

Reviews of other Paulsen books:

When Paulsen wrote Hatchet, he wrote a self contained story. It has a beginning, and resolves at the end. But readers apparently wanted to hear more. So Paulsen wrote The River, which continues the story, with Brian returning to the scene of the plane crash with someone studying survival techniques. 

But readers apparently wanted something different. Or at least more. They wanted to know how the story would have gone had Brian not been rescued, but had spent the winter stranded in the wilderness. In the introduction to Brian’s Winter, Paulsen notes that he received hundreds of letters to this effect. So he went back and wrote an alternative scenario. 

Brian’s Winter is very much in the vein of Hatchet, naturally. Brian must overcome new obstacles and face new challenges. But the basic facts are the same. He must survive. In order to survive, he must continually find food. He must protect himself from the elements and from dangers posed by animals that would love to eat him.

Paulsen writes from experience. While he never had a catastrophe like Brian, he did spend a lot of time in the wilderness, and tested the techniques he writes about. Because of this, the books have a very realistic feel to them. To the degree that I am familiar with the topics, I can confirm that Paulsen is scrupulously devoted to accuracy. He does not exaggerate. He does not get the details wrong.

But the real charm of these books is the storytelling. Paulsen always tells a good story, whether it is realistic or humorous. His characters are memorable, human, and match their ages well. Paulsen doesn’t shy away from discomfort either, whether it is Brian’s nausea after he kills an animal for food, or the social discomfort the hapless Kevin (in Vote and Flat Broke) experiences when his plans go awry. But Paulsen is always hopeful. Brian will survive - and learn from his difficulties. Kevin will grow up a bit. And Reed will unfailingly find the zombie poop.

I found Brian’s Winter to be every bit as enjoyable as the original. There are two more in the series, which I am sure we will eventually get to during our travels.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

A decade or so ago, there was a big scandal in journalism when it came to light that New York Times writer Jayson Blair had fabricated quotes and people and even travel in his stories. A few years before that, a similar incident involving The New Republic’s Stephen Glass caused a stir. In both cases, the problem wasn’t just the fabrication, but the presenting of what was essentially fiction as if it were fact.

Despite the pearl clutching over the supposedly dismal state of ethics in our modern world, these sorts of scandals are nothing new. In fact, there are many known cases of similar cheating throughout the history of journalism. I also strongly suspect that there are many, many more that will never come to light, simply because it was much easier to invent sources before ease of travel and the internet made fact checking possible.

Joseph Mitchell is one of those cases from the past that did get caught. A writer for The New Yorker for most of his career, Mitchell was known for his long-form profiles of people and interesting places and traditions in New York City. Alas, it turned out that a few of his articles suffered from a certain lack of truthfulness. In particular, Old Mr. Flood was, as he confessed, not about a real person, but an amalgam of several people he knew. That said, most of Mitchell’s writing was actually truthful, but he succumbed to the temptation to embellish.

McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon was Mitchell’s first book, and was a collection of fiction and non-fiction works originally published in The New Yorker during the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is difficult to find the original work these days, as it is out of print. However, an expanded edition of it is available in Up In The Old Hotel, which collects most of Mitchell’s works, including Old Mr. Flood. This is the version that I read. I didn’t read the other books in this book, just McSorley’s.

There are a total of 20 non-fiction articles and 7 short stories in this book, and they cover a fascinating range of topics. The title article is about an old-school saloon in The Bowery, with a colorful history and interesting traditions. Other subjects include Joe Gould, a bohemian writer who may or may not have ever written anything, child prodigy Philippa Schuyler, New York’s Gypsy population, a terrapin farm in Georgia, clam fishing off of Long Island, a man devoted to the abolition of swearing, the Deaf Club, Beefsteak parties, and a host of other eccentrics.

The fictional stories can be grouped into two parts. The first is a set of four which share the theme of alcohol and alcoholism. The second consists of three humorous works set in the South.

It’s impossible to cover all the ground which Mitchell does in this book, so I’ll just hit a few highlights. Mitchell’s writing is evocative. He really draws out the earthy feeling of the places he writes about. The grime and and poverty is apparent, but neither glorified nor disdained. Even his less sympathetic subjects are treated with dignity and respect. Mitchell also tries to avoid making judgments, preferring to let his subjects talk, and allowing the reader to draw conclusions. He is able to see the nuances and complexities inherent in humanity.

In the introduction (written in 1992), Mitchell notes that he sees a graveyard humor in the stories now that he has gone back and re-read them. I agree with this assessment, and approve.

Just to mention a few things, the title story is intriguing. McSorley’s still exists, but it has changed. In 1970, for example, it was forced to allow women inside. When Mitchell wrote about it in 1940, it was still steadfastly resisting gender integration. In 2011, a much more serious indignity befell the tavern: the health department insisted it get rid of its resident cat. On the other hand, the memorabilia on the walls dates back to 1911. The history is pretty impressive. e.e. cummings wrote a poem about it, Abraham Lincoln (and Grant and T. R. too) patronized it, Woodie Guthrie and Hunter S. Thompson were also among its visitors. 

Particularly interesting to me is that the tavern stayed open during Prohibition. It was never raided, probably because it was a favorite of several Tammany Hall politicians and police officials.

According to regulars, Bill McSorley (son of the original founder) used to close the bar when he got tired in the evening, and if people were slow to finish their drinks, he would say, “Now see here, gents! I’m under no obligoddamnation to stand here all night while you hold on to them drinks.”

That, I must say, is an impressive and hilarious use of profanity.

In the article about Calypso singers, he quotes a lyric that sounded rather familiar:

If you want to be happy and live a king’s life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife.
That’s from a logical point of view,
Always love a woman uglier than you.

The lyrics are slightly different in the Jimmy Soul version from 1963, but it is the same song.

One last bit to mention: one of the short stories is a fictional account of a small town KKK. Set in a small town in North Carolina (given the name of Stonewall, and supposedly in Black Ankle County, which is actually a town), this story, “The Downfall of Fascism In Black Ankle County,” it was written in 1939, when Hitler and Il Duce were in the news, but the war hadn’t yet broken out. Certainly the horrors of the holocaust were still in the future. The story itself is set in the 20s, when the Klan had its renaissance.

Anyway, in this story, where it is a given that all of the kids in town have seen The Birth of a Nation (pretty much propaganda for the KKK - and not to be confused with the modern movie of the same name), a failed salesman and a puritanical fanatic team up to found a local chapter of the KKK. Because this is a humorous story, the saga ends badly and embarrassingly.

But what happens in between is interesting. The teaming up of someone under economic stress with a prude is no accident, and is pretty typical for racist organizations then and now.

And how interesting is this? Mitchell’s narrator (who may be a stand-in for himself) quotes a KKK tract which explains what the KKK stands for:

“The Ku Klux Klan stands on a platform of 100-per-cent Americanism, white supremacy in the South, deportation of aliens, purity of womanhood, and eradication of the chain store.”

Hey, it doesn’t take much tweaking to make this fit the election of 2016. Actually, just about anyone who has explored the rhetoric of the KKK in the past (and present) didn’t have to look it up. We already knew that a certain candidate was openly adopting the KKK platform and rhetoric.

You can see the elements here. Gender roles and female purity. Kick out the immigrants. Make it harder for African Americans to vote. America first. Tariffs. No globalization.

It gets better, too. These small-time KKK guys in the story did the usual of burning crosses in front of black churches, but they also had other targets. A blacksmith who had a reputation for profanity. A mentally disabled woman who had illegitimate children. A Jewish merchant. A black businessman.

Basically, they went after those who couldn’t defend themselves. The whole caper came to an end, finally, when they targeted a local moonshiner who competed with one of their own. When someone finally fought back (however incompetently - these are not brilliant bootleggers…) they packed it in. Because the KKK is about bullying those who have less power, and always has been.

For the most part, Mitchell is content in the non-fiction works to just report, not comment. People who are quoted sometimes say horrid, racist things. In this story, which is fictional, but realistic in its details, he takes more of a side, against fascism, against the KKK, and against racism.

This whole book is interesting, with a panoply of great characters, most of them real people.

A final note, Mitchell’s life took an interesting turn later. One of the subjects of this collection, the eccentric Joe Gould, was revisited by Mitchell 20 years later. In that profile (which I haven’t read), apparently Mitchell concluded that Gould suffered from writer’s block, and had never written the work he claimed to be working on.

Mitchell himself would go on to develop writer’s block too, and didn’t write anything of note after the early 1960s. However, he would still faithfully go to his office at the New Yorker - for the next few decades. For whatever reason, that magazine kept him on despite his lack of production. Definitely a peculiar ending to a distinguished yet flawed career. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hidden Figures

Last night, the lovely Amanda and I went to see Hidden Figures. For those who don’t know, this film tells the story of three pioneering African American women who worked for NASA during the space race.

Mary Jackson, aerospace engineer, in an era when neither women nor blacks were heard of in that position.

Dorothy Vaughan, mathematician and computer programer. And also the first African American woman to be a supervisor at NASA, and later the first to be head of personnel.

Katherine Johnson, who merely calculated the flight path for Alan Shepherd’s spaceflight, calculated John Glenn’s orbit and reentry, worked on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, co-authored 26 scientific papers, and now has a facility at NASA named after her for her decades of brilliant contributions to the space program. Basically as badass as they come.

These names really should be better known than they are. Kudos to NASA for doing its part to recognize them. 

 Mary Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Janelle Monae)

We tend to forget it these days, but in those pre-electronics years, all the math for space flight - and it is a LOT - was done by human “computers.” And many of these computers were women. (This didn’t just apply to flight, much of science was conducted this way. See How Old Is The Universe? for a bit more about women who contributed behind the scenes but never got credit.)

Some of these women - an entire unit at NASA in fact - were African American. These were the days of Jim Crow, so they had segregated bathrooms and so on, a fact which plays a major role in the film.

I don’t want to spoil the film (although history is history…), so I won’t go into too much further detail. This is a great film, though, and tells the story well. I was impressed that the focus remained firmly on the African American women, and didn’t become all about the whites who helped them.

A few things really struck me. One was the scene where John Glenn refuses to fly unless Katherine Johnson personally calculates his landing trajectory. This sounded a bit Hollywood, so I looked it up. Well blow me to Bermuda! It really happened. And Glenn really was as shockingly progressive as the film portrays him. Fraternizing with the “coloreds” indeed! (Glenn Powell really nailed the portrayal of Glenn too. Nice casting.) 

I also found the issue that arises between Katherine Johnson and Paul Stafford (portrayed by Jim Parsons). I have no idea exactly how this went in real life, but in the movie, Katherine stubbornly affixes her name as co-author of each report she types up, featuring work she does, but Paul insists that only his name be on there, because “computers don’t author reports.” Again, Hollywood license? Maybe. Or not. What I do know is that this sort of thing goes on all the time in the real world. Woman does work and comes up with ideas, man gets credit. My wife was specifically trained, so to speak, on how to play the nurse/doctor game. Nurse comes up with an idea, but must sell it to the doctor in a way that he thinks it is his idea, and can thus take credit for it. My wife’s generation, though, has been saying screw it to this game, and is more likely to insist on interacting as equals in different roles, not as superior and inferior. (Nurses work for the hospital, not doctors…) So I fully believe that Katherine Johnson had to put up with this from the white males on her team. In what had to have been a satisfying development, Johnson would go on to co-author a good many reports and scientific papers - and get credit for them.

Another powerful scene was where Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) truly realizes the cost that segregation is having on his team - Katherine must walk a half mile each way to relieve herself in the “colored” restroom - he goes ballistic, and violently destroys the sign on the segregated restroom, and proclaims that anyone can use any restroom in any building, white or black. His closing line is great:

At NASA, we all pee the same color.

The other line that was amazing and profound was this: Dorothy Vaughan meets Vivian Mitchell, who is some mucky-muck in Personnel in the newly desegregated bathroom. The two of them have a history, because Vaughan has been doing the work of supervising the “colored computer” unit, but has been refused a promotion. Mitchell claims it is just “how NASA works,” but everyone knows that the problem is that Vaughan is black.

After a bit of an awkward exchange in the bathroom, Mitchell says (more or less), “You know I never held any ill will toward you ladies.”

Vaughan hesitates, then softly says, “I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”

Mic drop.

I can’t get this line out of my mind.

Because this is really what I feel I am up against trying to discuss racial issues with my own tribe. Because everyone keeps saying, “I’m not a racist, but…”
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just said that Black Lives Matter is a media creation, and that police brutality is a myth.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just voted to give Steve Bannon a leadership position. (Sorry, he bragged about giving White Supremacy, sorry, the “Alt-Right” a platform at Brietbart. He doesn’t get a pass for that.)
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just said that blacks are “more criminal” or “less civilized” than whites.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you said racism doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is toward white people.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just reposted that meme mocking Michelle Obama in racial terms.
“I don’t have ill will toward brown skinned people.” But you just referred to protesters as “thugs” and “animals.”

“I’m not racist.”

“I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”
Damn, that’s a good line. It absolutely gets to the heart of the problem. Many people don’t really want to think about the impact their actions or inactions have on people of color. What is most important is that they don’t feel discomfort or have to look at themselves honestly. Mitchell wants to preserve her own sense that she is a good person, without having to actually stick her neck out and advocate for justice for Vaughan.

This perhaps is why I will be making sure my kids see this movie at some point. They need to see and understand that positive change requires more than positive feelings. It requires action. Each of the three women has to at some point demand justice for themselves - and they make the white people in power VERY uncomfortable when they do so. It also requires that those of us who wish to be allies for people of color cannot simply content ourselves by saying that we personally would never discriminate. We have to be like Harrison and refuse to allow segregation, consequences be damned. We have to be like the (unnamed) judge who goes against Virginia law to side with Brown v. Board of Education to allow Mary Jackson to attend engineering classes. We have to be like John Glenn and actively and expressly side with our brown skinned brothers and sisters - and yes sometimes that means politically too - no matter how much disapproval we get from our own tribe.

Otherwise, we are just staying in our little bubble, thinking a little good intention will paper over action and inaction that does evil. No, we’re not racist. Right?

“I know...I know that’s what you want to think.”

It’s very encouraging to me that Hidden Figures is doing well at the box office. Yes, it is well cast and well acted. (Taraji Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer are all outstanding.) But the story is powerful, and comes at a time where there has been an open revival of White Supremacy, and far too many people feel free to say openly racist things. This film is a reminder that, jackasses like Steve King notwithstanding, it wasn’t just white people who have contributed to the world. They just haven’t gotten the degree of credit they deserve. I am thrilled that this story is finding an audience.

Go see this film. Take your children (it has no gratuitous sex, violence, or language, actually). Let them see what our nation was like not very long ago, so they can understand what an appeal to return to the past really means for many Americans. This film should also encourage our daughters, and children of color, to aspire to careers in math and science. These women were nothing short of amazing, and without them, the space race would likely have played out very differently. Our society is better off when we encourage the contributions of all, regardless of gender, race, national origin, or religion. We must never forget that, and we must constantly fight against the ideas that seek to deny this truth.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: Audiobook I own jointly with my brother.

My goal has been to either listen to or read one (or more) Wodehouse books each year. Given his prolific output, I would have to live a very long time indeed to finish everything he wrote, but it’s worth the attempt. In 2015, I read one, and listened to two more. Then I missed fitting any in to 2016, which is odd, but there you have it. I started 2017 off right with this book, which we listened to on January 2nd.

While by no means a complete list of Wodehouse books I have read, here is the list of the ones I have discussed on this blog:

Wodehouse (WOOD-house) books generally fall into four categories: 1. The Jeeves and Wooster stories 2. The Psmith stories 3. The Blandings/Lord Emsworth stories and 4. Everything else. Although I have read all of the Psmith books, I did so before I started blogging. Those will probably have to wait until I locate an audiobook version so the kids and I can listen on trips. The others are all represented in the above list. 

Summer Lightning is a Lord Emsworth story. It was published under the title of Fish Preferred here in the United States, which makes no sense whatsoever as a title.

Clarence, 9th Earl of Emsworth, is a good natured old chap, a wee bit slow when it comes to conversation. He is utterly dominated by his sister, Lady least until he is pushed beyond his limits and he is forced to stand up to her. His hobby - and indeed his very life - is his prize winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. Also populating the Blandings universe is Rupert Baxter, formerly the Earl’s secretary, but now banished in disgrace - to the great consternation of Lady Constance; and Beech, the imposing butler; and Lord Emsworth’s neighbor and archrival, Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe, whose own pig is the only real rival to the Empress.  

In this particular book, intrigue and love have descended upon Blandings Castle, and, naturally, hilarity ensues.

Lord Emsworth’s disrespectable younger brother Galahad has returned, and is writing his memoirs. Gally had a wild and crazy youth, which is bad enough. But worse, he was a companion to many respectable aristocrats during their wild and crazy youths, and he knows hundreds of embarrassing and juicy secrets. And boy, does he intend to reveal them!

Not happy about this is Sir Gregory, who spent his 20s in dissipation and hijinks. Worst of all would be disclosure of the “prawn incident,” which the book never divulges, but mention of which causes great consternation. Also unhappy about the memoirs is Lady Constance, who, being an aunt and all, is a killjoy.

Love, on the other hand, comes via the younger residents of and visitors to Blandings. Wodehouse would never settle for something as boring as a love triangle. He insists on at least quadrilaterals, or, in this case, a love pentagon.

Lord Emsworth’s niece Millicent has fallen in love with Hugo Carmody, a penniless young man who has taken over for the banished Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Hugo returns the affection, but he knows he must somehow win the heart of Lord Emsworth if he wishes to marry above his station. Meanwhile, Lord Emsworth’s nephew, the rather ditzy Ronnie Fish, is madly in love with Sue Brown, a chorus girl, who often danced with Hugo. Ronnie, to win his uncle’s affection, conspires to steal the Empress, then “find” her and be a hero.

Once the Empress goes missing, things start to get crazy. Lord Emsworth dispatches Hugo to London to hire Percy Frobisher Pilbeam, a private detective who is infatuated with Sue, to recover the Empress. Meanwhile, Sir Gregory hires Pilbeam to steal Gally’s manuscript, which is also being sought by Baxter at the behest of Lady Constance. And then circumstances conspire to lead to a misunderstanding between each set of lovers, and, well, I’ll stop there. The result is typical Wodehouse. Wit and humor abound, and nobody is exempt from being the butt of a joke or two.

I should say a word about the audiobook. From what I can tell, there are two camps of Wodehouse audiobook aficionados: those who insist that Jonathan Cecil is the only true interpreter of Wodehouse, and those who say the same about Martin Jarvis. Find a review thread on Amazon, and expect the discussion to get overheated really fast.

We had previously experienced Cecil, but not Jarvis, who narrated this book. I have to say, if you are going to listen to a Jeeves book, go with Cecil. Because nobody (except, of course, Stephen Fry) can bring Jeeves to life like Cecil. His work is simply outstanding. And really, all of the Wodehouse books he has narrated are top notch. Those who favor him are not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. I would even say that everyone should listen to Jonathan Cecil read Wodehouse at least once in their lifetime.

But, now that I have heard Jarvis, I will give credit where it is due. Jarvis is a legitimate competitor to Cecil, and has earned his place in the pantheon. While Jarvis doesn’t quite raise Beech to the Jeeves level, Jarvis is simply amazing at the other voices. This book has a wide variety of characters, and there is never a doubt about who is speaking - he makes each voice individual. I was particularly impressed that Millicent and Sue sound very different, despite both being earnest young ladies. Jarvis nails the inflections that each class would use. Galahad is also well done, with a distinctive voice that doesn’t really duplicate any other Wodehouse character.

But the very best is the way Jarvis handles Lord Emsworth. The stutter, the fear around Constance, the affection for the pig. It’s all there, and so very well done.

So, I guess I can’t pick. Probably Cecil for Jeeves, but Jarvis for Blandings. Jarvis would probably nail Psmith too, so I may have to seek out one of those.

Summer Lightning is a delightful and typical Wodehouse comedy, a light and pleasant read.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Essays of Francis Bacon

Source of book: I own this.

“If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.” The earliest this proverb appears is in this work, Essays, by Francis Bacon. It is one of many that have entered the common knowledge - and yet the witticisms are not Bacon’s primary contribution to the world of thought. 

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, was quite the polymath. He served as Attorney General under King James I (making him roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare), served in Parliament, and contributed to philosophy, science, and literature. During his lifetime, he was considered to be the one who established the essay form, although later generations have acknowledged his debt to Montaigne and Aristotle who also utilized the basic idea.

However, one can truthfully say that Bacon was the founder of the Scientific Method. It was he who advocated for the switch from science as “natural philosophy,” best advanced through logical thought, to an empirical discipline, where careful observation, experimentation, and testing were rigorously employed. To say that this was revolutionary would be to gravely understate the scope of the change.

The Aristotelian view of science as a purely intellectual pursuit, unsullied by the dross of experimentation, had prevailed for 2000 years, but it had let to a lot of error. To quote David Weintraub (How Old Is The Universe, reviewed here), “Aristotle’s logic and reasoning were elegant, sophisticated, powerful, and regrettably also wrong.”

To Bacon, one must use the senses, not just the intellect. One must test. One must ruthlessly eliminate biases. And thus would truth be discovered.

In addition to his scientific endeavors, Bacon also promoted a number of ideas which would become central to the Enlightenment and to the founding of the United States. (Jefferson named him, along with Locke and Newton as those who most influenced his ideas.)

Essays was Bacon’s first published book, the first edition coming out in 1597. He continued to add to the book through 1625, which is the final edition most of us know. He considered it a bit of a trifle compared with his other works and pursuits. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most important and influential books of its time - and indeed any time.

The essays cover a wide variety of topics, from musings on truth, fame, and friendship to practical ideas for statecraft and international policy. He intentionally keeps his ideas broad and widely applicable rather than specific to his time and circumstances.

To me, the collection was fascinating for the combination of ideas that sound impossibly archaic with ones that still resonate in the 21st Century. On the one hand, he casually accepts the inferiority of women and monarchy as the natural form of government. But he also advocates for reducing the number and power of wealthy nobles, freedom of speech and thought, and separation of religion from state power.

There are a number of quotes that really stood out to me.

In “Of Unity In Religion,” he warns against the use of temporal power in the name of religion. I found it interesting that, while he disliked the idea of the government using religion, he was equally or more appalled by the idea of religion becoming a weapon of the masses in revolution and in rage against those who do not share their beliefs.

It was great blasphemy, when the devil said, I will ascend, and be like the highest; but it is greater blasphemy, to personate God, and bring him in saying, I will descend, and be like the prince of darkness; and what it is better, to make the cause of religion to descend, to the cruel and execrable actions of murthering princes, butchery of people, and subversion of states and governments? Surely this is to bring down the Holy Ghost, instead of the likeness of a dove, in the shape of a vulture or raven; and set, out of the bark of a Christian church, a flag of a bark of pirates, and assassins.

It’s hard to find a better condemnation of  “in the name of God, harm” than the changing of the Spirit from a dove to a vulture. (This sure seems applicable today to both “Corporations WILL be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or else” and to “LGBTQ people should be denied housing and employment and health care.” Vultures one and all.) As Bacon notes, the problem is the exercise of temporal power in service of this corrupted religion.

Bacon’s relationship to women was a bit, shall we say, complicated. While there has been speculation that he was gay, the evidence is sorely lacking. From what I can tell, a verdict of assexuality is better supported. Or, it could be that a couple of early experiences turned him sour on women altogether. The first was his first love, Elizabeth Hatton, a young widow who dumped him for a wealthier man. And not just any man, she married Edward Coke, Bacon’s mortal enemy throughout his life. Later, Coke would successfully drive Bacon from his public position. Bacon tried again at love later, marrying Alice Barnham. (Just an indication of the time he lived in: He was 45, she was 14.) It was not a happy marriage. She seems to have felt he didn’t make enough money to support the lifestyle she grew up in, and she eventually cheated on him. They never had children. So, not much positive there for Bacon.

So, with that in mind, here are some interesting lines from “Of Marriage and Single Life.”

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

“Hostages to fortune” is one of the lines that originated with Bacon, by the way. It is the second one, however, that I think has a real ring of truth about it.

Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity.

As a divorce attorney, I have to say heck yes! While violent marriages are the worst, the second worst is the one where the wife was a virgin on the honeymoon and has never let him forget it. I could write an entire post on the way that Purity Culture has conflated virtue in females with sexual purity, and lied to them that they are specially entitled to wealth, happiness, and service from their husbands because of their hymens.

One more line, quite sour:

Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.

Later, in “Of Love,” he expresses a general disdain for romantic love.

The stage is more beholding to love, than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies; but in life it doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.

One final one comes from “Of Friendship,” which is generally quite good, musing on the need for a true confidant, an equal, to who one can unburden and also count on for unbiased advice. He captures the difficulty of kings (and indeed the powerful) in finding true friends, not those looking for advantage. But there is one problem, which is one that has been considered to be an unquestioned truth through most of human history:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

It hardly need be said that my own experience contradicts this. Indeed, the idea of “but as a husband” is really meaningless. “Husband” to me does not mean superiority of station, higher authority, or - what was near-universally believed throughout history - a natural superiority in every way to a woman. Instead, husband means that we are equals, that we are friends, and that we may indeed speak freely with each other. Perhaps this is the most profound way in which Feminism has made my life immeasurably better.

I don’t want to create the impression that Bacon is all like this. The fact is, these are memorable lines, and they stand out because they are a bit dated.

The short essay “On Studies” is quite good. Here is the best part:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

That first clause is in fact why I really loathe the whole endeavor of apologetics: it is reading merely to contradict and refute someone else’s position, not to learn for learning’s sake. The second pretty much describes the way most people read political writing: to find confirmation of their biases. The third has perhaps fallen out of style along with discourse in general. And it is incredibly rare to find those who read truly to weigh and consider different points of view. That is, reading with an open mind to find truth, not to confirm one’s own opinion and arm oneself for battle against those with a different perspective.

The passage goes on to say:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

This too is true. I don’t necessarily read through every source for everything. I do seek out primary sources, but not everything requires a full study. I do not need, for example, all of Josephus to confirm one incident he writes about. The rest may be interesting, but not necessary. Other books are more for fun than study. I don’t look to P. G. Wodehouse for profundity, although he does have a sharp eye for human foibles. But there are others which require careful attention and full diligence. Might I recommend, for example, The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker as one that many people I know would be well advised to digest thoroughly before asserting badly uninformed opinions about the glories of the past.

Another great essay is “Of Riches.” It begins thus:

I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue. The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit.

So many good things here. Riches do indeed impede the development of virtue. Sadly, our modern American belief is that riches are evidence of virtue, which is pretty much the opposite of how Christ (and the prophets) appeared to view them. As evidence of oppression of others and an impediment to entering the Kingdom of God. But we prefer to worship wealth - and the wealthy. The second point is good too: once riches exceed a certain amount, they don’t really benefit the rich person. They are of no true usefulness. Once one has shelter, food, healthcare, and some basics, the rest is all about bragging of what one has.

I also want to mention in this connection, a thought from “Of The True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates” The essay is broader than this one point, touching on a variety of issues related to why states are great and how they can attain or preserve greatness. But this one is interesting and applies well to our modern times:

Let states that aim at greatness, take heed how their nobility and gentlemen do multiply too fast. For that maketh the common subject, grow to be a peasant and base swain, driven out of heart, and in effect but the gentleman’s laborer.

Hmm, let’s think about our own times, where inequality is growing at a rapid pace, while real wages for all except those at the top have declined. Too many people at the top with status and wealth - and who don’t really have to work at common labor. Those lower down becoming in essence laborers to preserve the wealth and privilege of those higher up. Nope, not at ALL like what we have seen in the last 40 years. We in the US tend to think we don’t have class distinctions. Like hell we don’t. We just pretend we don’t have castes.

Another interesting observation comes in “Of Great Place,” which addresses good governance and how to avoid corruption.

For corruption: do not only bind thine own hands, or thy servants’ hands, from taking, but bind the hands of suitors also, from offering For integrity used doth the one; but integrity professed, and with a manifest detestation of bribery, doth the other.

Words to ponder when we talk about campaign finance and other related topics. Bacon continues:

And avoid not only the fault, but the suspicion. Whosoever is found variable, and changeth manifestly without manifest cause, giveth suspicion of corruption. Therefore always, when thou changest thine opinion or course, profess it plainly, and declare it, together with the reasons that move thee to change; and do not think to steal it.

On the one level, this is the question that should be directed at every politician who flip flops on an issue. See, I understand changing one’s mind. I’ve changed a lot in the last 20 years. If you follow my blog, I really try to explain the ways I have changed, and why. But that is much different from changing because it benefits you.

But I want to carry this one further. This doesn’t just apply to politicians. It applies to all of us. Do we change our positions because the change is genuine? Or because it benefits us to change?

One of the things that has just burned me this past election is to see “Christian” leader after leader explain why when Bill Clinton was president, sexual peccadilloes were the end of the world, a total and absolute disqualification for office. And now, when someone who brags about sexual assault and going into teen girls’ changing rooms to gratify his lust and thirst for power is somehow not just acceptable, but the last hope of Christianity, I have to ask, are you going to admit your change in position? Are you going to explain why you changed your mind?

Of course not. Because the reality is damning. They haven’t really changed their mind in any defensible way. There has been no epiphany. And they will go right back to their former position as soon as it benefits them. Because the only thing that changed is the letter after the last name of the candidate. And what does that mean? That the one promised them political power and the other didn’t. All the flip flopping has proven is that these “Christian” leaders never really gave a rat’s ass about character. It was always about political power. Their political power. And their actions have proven them to be corrupt to the core.

One final essay I want to mention - although there are many other excellent ones - is “Of Seditions And Troubles.” Bacon was, as I have noted, a monarchist, and he hated the idea of civil unrest. I tend to share the second of these, as I am temperamentally inclined toward peace rather than revolution. This whole essay is outstanding, for a number of reasons.

First is his insight that civil unrest is commonly greatest “when things grow to equality.” One of the things I have noticed as I have studied history is that there has been a reaction every time there has been a milestone in racial equality. (This is by no means original to me, of course. But once I read about it, it was interesting how well it fit.) So, after the Civil War freed the slaves, there was a violent reaction to Reconstruction. The first iteration of the KKK formed and terrorized the former slaves. The South enacted a series of laws which established Jim Crow and poll taxes, and so on. Likewise, the second wave of the KKK (beginning in 1915) was a reaction against growing immigration from Catholic countries, increased urbanization, and...wait for it...a perceived loss of political clout to Southern white males. (Notably, working women were a target of this movement. Get them back in the home where they belong…) The third KKK arose during the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and the rise of the Religious Right were in direct response to the enactment of civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. In my own time, it is no accident that the first African American president has been followed by an outpouring of racial hatred, with White Supremacists openly cheering the perceived triumph of their political goals. Bacon was right, there is a reaction to growing equality, and civil unrest follows.

Bacon goes on to say that a symptom of this unrest is libels against the state. That is, false claims about the state. Perhaps, um, conspiracy theories? Guess what has become the stock and trade of the fringe elements of both sides lately? This crap keeps popping up in my Facebook feed, from people who really should know better.

Bacon is absolutely correct, though. These are symptoms, not causes. He also is correct that the worst thing to do is to suppress them. Nothing makes them linger more than active suppression. On the other hand, Bacon advocates despising these false ideas. Show them contempt.

I’ll just hit on the rest of it. Bacon notes (correctly) that a main cause of civil unrest is poverty. He mentions two kinds: first, the impoverishment of the “better sort.” By this he means the lesser nobility and larger landowners: the middle to upper middle class, as it were. Second, the lack of necessities for the lower classes. He considers the combination of both of these to be the worst possible danger. This is what violent revolutions spring from. (See, for example, the French Revolution and the Communist Revolutions.) Bacon warns in the strongest terms that a wise prince will not ignore either of these, but will take action before it is too late.

More good stuff: Bacon warns strongly against letting wealth and power accumulate in the hands of a few. He even advises the use of luxury taxes to curb the excesses of the rich. He warns against quick changes to laws, particularly those affecting religion or custom. Finally, he notes that lasting peace comes when the rulers have a good reputation, and not when they are popular and bombastic. Dang, maybe we should have thought about that recently, yes?

Seriously, the whole essay is great. It will probably appeal to those of the center-right like me, who value a basically conservative outlook, but who see grave danger in inequality and ostentation. Address the problems before they get bad, aggressively work to keep wealth and power spread as broadly as possible, and seek to use good judgment rather than demagoguery.

Because of its age, this book is best read a little at a time. The language (as is obvious from the quotes) is archaic. Even I had to look a few words up from time to time. I will also note that Bacon assumes the reader knows Latin and French, as he quotes from it often. Google is your friend in this endeavor, although many of the quotes can be figured out if you have a passing knowledge of Latin roots.

By modern standards, Bacon may seem a man of the past. But it is worth remembering that without Bacon, we would not be who we are today. We take for granted that his most revolutionary ideas are true. Indeed, they are the ideas that the Enlightenment was built on, and on which rest much of our modern world.

Postscript: The truth of the story has been disputed, and there is little direct evidence either way. But here it goes: Bacon died at age 65 of pneumonia. This much is undisputed. One of his early biographers wrote that he caught said pneumonia while attempting a scientific experiment on the preservation of meat. To wit, he was testing whether chickens could be kept preserved by filling their bodies with snow. In an era when refrigeration was unknown, and germ theory itself wouldn’t be proposed for another quarter century - indeed, germ theory wouldn’t be accepted for nearly three hundred years! - Bacon was on to one of the revolutionary ideas of modern life that we take for granted. I can purchase food, and it will keep easily for a week. If I freeze it, it can last years. And I won’t get sick when I eat it. This is the true stuff of revolution. Alas, Bacon succumbed to those germs that hadn’t been discovered, and his death was blamed on a chill, which probably wasn’t as much of a factor as his old age (for the era).