#21) Thinking About Feeling III: The Power of Meaning

smithEmily Esfahani Smith is a writer focusing on culture, psychology, and relationships. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, as well as the New Criterion, where she has a regular column. Her new book, The Power of Meaning, argues that the pursuit of happiness is a wild goose chase. If you want to be happy, Smith argues, you need to pursue meaning.

 

Eric:

I first encountered Emily Esfahani Smith on New Year’s Day, as you and I were sitting around a friend’s apartment nursing mild hangovers. Someone had shared this article on social media, and I read it through bleary eyes and a more-or-less defeated outlook on life. Donald Trump would be inaugurated in three short weeks.

So Smith’s article came to me at an opportune moment. It assured me that, even when life is not happy, it still has the potential to be meaningful. In fact, meaning is very often a prerequisite for happiness, and oftener still a higher vantage from which to look down upon it. Her article was, at that early hour, the most inspiring thing that I had read so far in 2017. When I got home a week or so later, I looked up her book and found that it expands on that promise.

In short, Smith argues that we live amid a crisis of meaning, when the failures of late capitalism have created a culture that is at once happiness-obsessed and happiness-deprived. The more we chase the material things that pledge to make us happy – and the more we post photos of ourselves doing so – the more fulfillment seems to elude us. It’s always somewhere out in front, always receding, like the carrot before the mule.

Instead, Smith writes, we should forget about happiness for a moment and reorient ourselves toward meaning-making, especially as it concerns four main categories: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Such a shift would direct us ultimately toward growth, and then on to a new culture of meaning.

I like this argument a lot – maybe more than you do. It’s also the case that, for the first time since 2008, I am not optimistic about the future, either of my country or the world. Smith assures me that I needn’t be despondent – that there are full, deep reservoirs of life available even in dark times.

Matt:

I like this argument too. To be honest, I don’t even see it as an argument, really; I see it more as a description of what we already know – if we pay attention to our own experience.

Of course, I frequently ignore my own experience, living in an imaginary world of inherited concepts and hand-me-down “wisdom.” A lot of my waking day isn’t particularly conscious – it’s just mental and behavioral patterns. Breaking through those patterns – noticing that I’m in them, and then consciously redirecting my attention and energy in different directions – is hard work, but damn rewarding.

But I can’t do it alone, and one of the best things about this book is the way it helps me put a finger on some things that just haven’t felt right in my life. Smith’s emphasis on belonging is particularly interesting: I’ve felt kinda lonely for a long time, and while I understand (at a conceptual level) that it would feel good to work alongside others in some sort of shared endeavor, I haven’t found one.

Smith’s point about the loss of shared sources of cultural meaning feels really relevant here. Some of the older forms – religion, nationalism – don’t speak to me. (Political organizing does speak to me, but I live far from home.) I suppose I’d like to be part of something, but not just for the sake of it – it would have to feel real, honest, true, and worthwhile.

It might not happen at a culture-wide level, either. Most of my life is pretty local, and I tend to think of belonging on that smaller scale – a few friends, family members, folks who share common interests.

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#20) We Are All Russians Now: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

truePeter Pomerantsev is a journalist and long-time Russian television producer. In 2014 he published Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, a series of vignettes about his experiences trying to capture the ethos of contemporary Russia under the “postmodern dictatorship” of Vladimir Putin. A fascinating portrait in its own right, Pomerantsev’s book feels suddenly applicable under the bizarre, fact-free Donald Trump regime. Is the United States on its way to becoming the next Russia?

Eric:

There are a lot of characters in Nothing is True, and I mean that in at least two senses. Pomerantsev introduces us to a lot of people, and they are wild. Prostitutes, gangsters, bureaucrats, and businessmen – all struggling to get ahead in one of the strangest places on earth. Russia under Putin – who Pomerantsev always references only as “The President” – is a tightly controlled society that is also flush with new money and spun by endless propaganda. You are left with the disorienting sense of being in a place where reality is always flexible and, for the right price, anything can be bought.

There are any number of examples we could consider here, but the one that stuck with me was the story of Yana Yakovleva, a 34-year-old businesswoman who was abruptly arrested at her gym, tried for drug trafficking, summarily convicted, and imprisoned indefinitely, all for selling a chemical used in common household cleaners – a product that was entirely legal and in which her company had specialized since its founding. Pomerantsev describes her hearing:

The prosecutor was another man in a polyester suit.

“Yakoleva is a highly dangerous criminal. She has been hiding from us. We had to hunt her down. She needs to be put under arrest until the trial.”

What had he just said? Hiding? Where? Where had she been hiding? At the gym? At work? What were they talking about? The prosecutor just smiled at her. The judge nodded and repeated what he had said word for word and said no bail was granted. She would await trial in prison. The next hearing would be in two months.

Everything was spinning again. The prosecutor walked up to Yana and whispered, “Bad girl, why did you hide from us?”

Eventually, after tireless effort from her family and their lawyer, Yakoleva is released from prison. But not, importantly, because of their effort. At least not entirely.

Pomerantsev explains that Yakoleva was the victim of a bureaucratic intrigue, launched by an upper-level Putin functionary who was trying to establish his agency, the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency, atop some high-profile busts. To do this, he simply declared several commonly marketed chemicals to be narcotics, and then arrested the people who sold them. Yakoleva was one of these.

Through her family’s efforts, Yakoleva’s case inspired some small-scale protests and a little media coverage – not that this helped.

In Russia you can protest all you like; it won’t change anything. You can scream and scream, but no one will hear you.

Ultimately, Yakoleva was freed as a consequence of political rivalry. The Putin functionary whose stealth policy change got her imprisoned was opposed by another Putin functionary who didn’t like being shown up, and it was only after their political clash prompted the first functionary’s fall that the law quietly returned to normal and a host of convicted drug dealers became legitimate businessmen once again. Things returned to normal, for now, with the ever-present caveat that they can go back and forth (or elsewhere) without a moment’s notice.

For me, now that Trump is president and his lackeys trade daily in “alternative facts,” the question is exigent – can we expect this stuff here?

Matt:

I think we’re still a long way from Putin-style authoritarianism; as far as I know, the White House doesn’t manipulate the inner workings of private corporations, control the output of independent news organizations, or jail its enemies at will. That could all happen one day, but it’s hard to see it happening tomorrow. I think our traditions – and the pride we take in them – will take longer to erode.

For me, though, one of the things that’s so disconcerting about Trump is that I think he would do some of those things if he could get away with it. He seems to have little understanding of – much less respect for – the rights and liberties of a free, democratic society. He doesn’t even seem to have a sense of his own values.

What he does have, though, is an endless desire to pick fights (and to act as if others are picking fights with him). I’m no psychologist, and I don’t know anything about his childhood, but when I look at him, I see a guy who doesn’t seem to have been loved very well – and who never really learned how to love in return. Maybe there are other sides of him in private, but in public, he’s all sharpness and paper-thin posing – a bully who doesn’t want to throw punches, but doesn’t know how else to touch.

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#19) Creating Political Change – with Nicholas Hayes

schlozmanOur guest this week is Nicholas Hayes. Nicholas is pursuing his PhD in ethics at Boston College, focusing on the intersection of political theology and community organizing. He’s been involved in faith-based organizing since 2009, most recently with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Our text is Daniel Schlozman’s When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History (2015). Nicholas tells us, briefly, how Schlozman’s political ideas square with his own organizing experience.

Matt:

This week we read Daniel Schlozman’s When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. Schlozman examines why some social movements – the Christian Right, organized labor – have succeeded at integrating with and influencing political parties, while others – the anti-war movement, Occupy – have not. Essentially, he argues:

Movements need to convince pragmatists inside parties that they’ll be a good electoral bet, and that they won’t upset the apple cart and disrupt the rest of the party coalition too much. So movements have got to offer resources to parties that they can’t get elsewhere – votes, and the money, time, and networks needed to get votes. In return, parties will deliver policy for their group allies.

This seems right to me. How do you see it? And can we apply some of this to help us understand what’s going on in American politics today?

Nicholas:

That seems right to me too, Matt. And I think Schlozman’s argument is instructive for activists and organizers of many stripes today.

I’ll be honest: I came to this book less because I wanted to understand our political scene than because I wanted to figure out what to do about it. I’ve been an activist and organizer for seven years. Most of that time, I’ve been organizing faith-based institutions in Boston. But a few years back, I was an Occupier too. I’ve worked in the New Economy movement. I’ve been a ground level protester in Black Lives Matter. Since January 20th of this year, I’ve been going to one protest after another!

Through it all, I’ve kept coming back to one central question: how does large scale, structural change in a society really happen? That’s what many of us, Left and Right, say we need right now. Our system seems really broken. And many of us think creating that change will take some kind of “movement” – that term is thrown around a lot. But how do we really get there? I think I keep coming back to that question because so many of the “movements” I’ve participated in don’t seem to get there.

Take Occupy. Starting in September 2011, it generated a lot of energy, quickly mobilizing thousands of people to start camping out in cities all over the country, and many thousands more to support them. It spread all over the media, and made inequality a topic of conversation again. Yet four months after it began, the camps were gone and the movement was largely finished. No major social, institutional, or policy change happened.

Does that mean Occupy accomplished nothing? No, I don’t think so. I tend to agree with the folks who claim that Occupy “changed the weather.” It awakened the public to economic inequality as a central issue that needed to be addressed, urgently. You could argue that Occupy made the Fight for $15 campaigns possible, and the breakout success of Thomas Piketty’s book. It made the Bernie campaign possible.

But Occupy didn’t yield anything directly. It didn’t come close to effecting a change in our political economy. It didn’t touch the trend of the 1% consolidating wealth at the expense of the 99%. To do that, it would’ve somehow needed to generate political power, since (I think) government policy remains the most effective instrument to create large-scale, lasting structural change. At least, that’s what the past 200 years of history seem to suggest. How do we tackle the inequality problem? Few strategies seem more effective than taxation and redistribution. When we had a 94% tax rate on top incomes in the US, the income and wealth ratios didn’t look like they do now!

The problem is, creating change through the government in the United states requires working through the party system. And most people have been pretty dissatisfied with our parties for the last couple decades, at least. In the eyes of people on both the Left and the Right, politicians haven’t been accomplishing much. There’s a widespread suspicion that they act only for their own narrow interests, and the special interests that pay them. That resentment (ironically) played a major role in getting Trump into the Oval Office. The Trump and Bernie campaigns (some call them “movements”) were both ambitious, “populist” attempts to reclaim the major parties from “party establishments,” and shift their focus to agendas grassroots activists cared about (though I think the Bernie campaign was much more genuinely grassroots than the Trump’s).

Anyway, one succeeded. Trump may well achieve dramatic social change (to my mind, of a pretty horrific kind)! But now the question for Trump’s base is: will Trump stay faithful to them, and actually realize the dramatic changes he’s promised: bringing back jobs, making America “safe,” cleaning up government? And for the millions of former Bernie activists, like myself, the question is: after Clinton’s loss, can we succeed now in taking over the Democratic party, and beat Trump at his populist game?

Enter Schlozman. Schlozman’s big question is “how to take movement fervor and translate it into durable change?” (256) His challenging claim is that movements most effectively achieve their goals when they are able to “anchor” parties – when they forego the initial independence they have as movements to create a stable alliance with a major political party. (Trying to imagine how that claim would have rubbed most Occupiers – not well, I think!) Independence is no small sacrifice, but making the sacrifice allows movements to acquire power within the party, and (sometimes) to significantly reshape its agenda. Schlozman’s five case studies are meant to illustrate what successful and failed “anchoring” look like.

What did you think of the case studies, Matt? Any of particular interest – or of relevance to today? And were you surprised by any examples Schlozman left out?

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#18) The “Millennial Novel”: Private Citizens

citizensTony Tulathimutte is a really great writer and his name is extremely hard to spell. He is the author of Private Citizens, the highly touted 2016 novel about a group of four 2o-something friends finding their way in contemporary San Francisco. Stylistically comparable to Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, Tulathimutte retains his own distinctive voice, speaking in a language that the millennial generation understands. By turns hilarious and disturbing, the book is recommended reading.

Eric:

When you had asked me for my initial thoughts on Private Citizens, I said that it had prompted me to give up my dream of being a novelist. That was an exaggeration, for sure, but not a complete exaggeration. Tulathimutte is a major talent. His book is fast-paced, wide-ranging, and indicative of an intensely curious mind that knows a lot about a lot of things. It’s also insanely, exhaustingly clever. After only a few pages, I felt like there was no way I could ever do this, which is correct. No one could, except him.

Private Citizens is also significant for being, as some have called it, the first great millennial novel. The author has rejected the very idea of generational novels, for compelling reasons. But this one is undeniably millennial, with characters that seem familiar even if they aren’t especially likable. I can’t say I really liked any of the people in this story, but I read about them anyway.

Matt:

The book definitely feels familiar – the young people who star in this book think and talk like many of my friends and I do – but I start to get lost when we use words like “millennial.” I’m also kinda suspicious; it smells like marketing language to me. But maybe I’m just not paying enough attention to the zeitgeist. What does the word mean to you?

Eric:

Generational markers have their limits, but they aren’t useless. This is a book about four young people who come of age early in the 21st century and get caught up in a lot of the things that young people have tended to catch in the past decade or so – some politics, some activism, some drugs, a lot of relational conflict, and a variety of emotional crises. The Internet features prominently, and there is a ton of trendy lingo that Tulathimutte manages to employ without being annoying.

Importantly, too, the story is set in San Francisco. It features a bunch of Stanford grads, and there is a lot of talk about start-ups and communal living and being successful in the company of a bunch of smart and driven but not necessarily stable peers. There is a balance of male and female characters, they are all more-or-less equally interesting, and their discussions always have something to do with race, sex, class, etc. They’re smart kids, loose in the city, making a bunch of mistakes and discussing it all in a high-toned vernacular.

(In that sense, it’s all vaguely Dawson’s Creek-ish, but again, not annoying.)

Could this book have been set in New York, with a less diverse cast, like some comparable stories? Maybe, but I sort of doubt it.

Not only is Private Citizens very sharply written, but as you mention, a lot of it just rings very true. You and I are on the front edge of millennialism, and often I think we may have missed the crest of the wave. But Tulathimutte makes me feel within the orbit, at least. Like I know (or knew) these people personally.

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#17) On Jonathan Franzen

franzenJonathan Franzen is the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections (2001), Freedom (2010), and Purity (2015), among others. An odd and often perplexing figure, Franzen is also a master craftsman with a broad knowledge base and a distinctive literary style. His novels tend to bind a group of people – often a family – around one core theme, illustrating how that theme plays out in their lives and interactions. He’s awesome.

Eric:

If you judge exclusively from the headlines that appear periodically on social media, you can be forgiven for concluding that, for one reason or another, Jonathan Franzen is overrated, or a sexist, or otherwise an asshole. You’ve heard about his dust-up with Oprah Winfrey, the time he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan to jog his creativity, and you’ve seen, somewhere, his headshot. Much of that criticism is probably warranted.

But Franzen is also an incredible writer. His three most recent novels – The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity – are masterpieces. They take you down deep into their characters and into the fraught relationships that bind one to another. They’re about life, and family, stability and change, and the reality that, despite the best of our intentions, we are all deeply flawed creatures.

In preparation for this post, I read all three novels back-to-back, knocking out about almost 1700 pages in about two weeks. These are fat books, but the pages keep turning.

Any discussion of Franzen’s work enjoys a wealth of thematic and technical angles from which to approach. Where to start? What’s good to you?

Matt:

The Iraqi orphans thing is gross, of course, but it’s also surprising to me: I think the primary reason I love Franzen’s novels is his psychological accuracy. He gets deep into the folds of his characters’ hearts, and he does it with care. In The Twenty-Seventh City, he has a teenage girl named Luisa feel this way:

Tonight Luisa was supposedly going to the Bonfire and then staying over at Stacy’s. Actually she was going out to dinner with Duane and spending the night with him. There had been a lot of this supposedly-actually in the last three weeks….Luisa wasn’t as much afraid of getting caught as she was sure that one of these weeks, in her tiredness, she’d forget which side of the window she was on and do something stupid at home, like French-kissing her mother or calling her father “Baby.” She could feel the impatience inside her. Why don’t people who like each other kiss all the time? Why do people have to lie? She was feeling more honest and acting less honest. It was a dangerous mixture, like gasoline and wine, like fever and chills. She still had a cold, sort of a permanent cold, the sense that none of the things that used to matter anymore. She could do whatever she wanted. She could just say: “Give me a cigarette.”

It’s hard for me to imagine how someone can render interiority that well on the page and be so callous in real life. As best I can tell, seeing this clearly involves some degree of empathy; sometimes I think it’s empathy that enables this kind of insight in the first place.

But not always. People are funny; Franzen isn’t the first incredible artist to act the fool. And for that reason, I don’t much care about his stupid quotes in real life – or not any more than I do about any other famous person’s statements, anyway. His books stand on their own, and they’re astonishing. The passage in The Corrections that takes you inside Alfred’s experience of Alzheimer’s – for me, it was telekinetic, full-hearted, riveting.

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#16) What’s the Matter with Liberals?

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-11-43-43-amThomas Frank is perhaps most famous for  What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), a book arguing that Republican politicians exploit controversial social issues to manipulate working class voters into voting against their own economic interests. In subsequent years he published The Wrecking Crew (2008) and Pity the Billionaire (2011). This week we consider his latest, Listen, Liberal (2016), hoping to shed some light on the upcoming inauguration of Donald Trump.

Eric:

By Election Day, the fivethirtyeight model was giving Hillary Clinton a 71% chance of winning the Presidency. I found that figure very reassuring until I read a Nate Silver blog post that put it into perspective. As the polls opened, Silver wrote, Hillary Clinton’s chances are “equivalent to an NFL kicker making a 38-yard field goal.” That analogy gave me chills.

Though others had criticized Silver for being too cautious in his predictions – Sam Wang claimed he was doing it for the clicks – that caution looked pretty defensible by 10pm on November 8th.

Election-wise, it was all over but the crying. But American politics-wise, there are lessons to be learned, mistakes to be corrected, and resistance to be organized.

To this end I committed myself to reading every book on this list, all of which were interesting in their own way but none of which satisfied entirely. The one that came closest was Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal.

In Frank’s telling, the Democratic Party is essentially a centrist party bent on appropriating the key terms of conservative politics. If this strategy found its avatar in Bill Clinton – with his commitments to NAFTA, welfare reform, and mass incarceration – it was inherited by Barack Obama, recognizable in the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and many dozens of other well-intended but ill-fated reaches across the aisle. If these efforts were calculated to trade ambitious policy goals for mainstream credibility and credit, they don’t seem to have paid significant dividends.

What we need, Frank argues, is an honest-to-God liberal party that will make the working class the centerpiece of its mission, ditch Wall Street, and return to the New Deal – Great Society posture of the good old days.

There are criticisms of this position, for sure, and I think we will get into them. But I don’t think we can chalk this election up simply to racism or resentment or a worldwide populist wave. And we can consider Frank’s points without getting all despondent about Obama’s legacy. I think we have to.

Matt:

I worked for a Democratic congressional challenger in 2006. It was mostly a bunch of us local folks without a ton of experience, but we did have one bigger gun: a campaign consultant who’d been a top staffer for Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004. The consultant and I were chatting one day, and when I mentioned the Clintons, he let loose a venomous screed.

I’d certainly seen this kind of Clinton-hating on the right, but never on the left. I’d been a teenager in the 90’s, so I didn’t know most of what the consultant was talking about. I tried asking a more basic question – why didn’t he like the Clintons? As if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and I was a total naïf for asking, he replied, “Because they destroyed our party.”

In Frank’s telling, the Clinton presidency didn’t destroy the Democratic Party single-handedly, but it sure did drive a bunch of nails in the coffin. I remember thinking I was supposed to like him – he was a vigorous young Dem, after all, and not one of those evil old Republicans – but I can’t remember feeling proud or uplifted by much of what he did.

When I was 18, I met him at a White House awards ceremony; in my six-second handshake moment, I found myself wondering whether there was more complexity inside of him, some secret knowledge that would help explain why he hadn’t done more on behalf of the values we supposedly shared.

I have basically the same feeling about Hillary. She sometimes says cool, compassionate stuff, but she doesn’t live it in any consistent way. When she gave those lucrative speeches to Wall Street – and then refused even to share what she’d said with the rest of us – something cracked for me. Here was an insanely wealthy woman, world at her feet, standard-bearer of the Democratic Party and very likely the next president, and the best thing she could think to do with her time was to stock the vault? How could this be our candidate?

So yeah, I think Frank’s right: the Democratic Party has become weakly centrist. Outside of Obama, I can’t say I’ve been pumped by any of the nominees we’ve seen in our adult lives, and even he turned out to be much more centrist than I might have hoped.

The cruel irony, though, is that the center doesn’t stay in one place; when the Dems move to the center, the center itself moves right. So I think the Party – and the country – would be stronger if somebody were to give much louder voice to traditionally Democratic constituencies and concerns.

Of course, a lot of people would probably suggest that this is exactly what Bernie Sanders represented, and that he came decently close to knocking off Clinton in the primaries. I certainly think that a stronger, louder left wing could make for a healthier party overall (and perhaps even lead to some more compelling candidates). But I’m also open to the idea of a genuine third party.

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#15) The Thing About A.C. Grayling

reasonFor a variety of reasons stemming from his great self-assurance, the British philosopher AC Grayling has been called “the most hated man in academia.” He has published over thirty books in his lifetime, including The Meaning of Things (2001), The Mystery of Things (2004), The Heart of Things (2005), and The Form of Things (2006). This week we consider The Reason of Things (2002), an edited collection of Grayling’s newspaper columns examining a wide range of topics from his unique philosophical perspective.

Matt:

I read a couple volumes of AC Grayling’s short essays – The Reason of Things and The Meaning of Things – and thought they’d be right up your alley. In these collections (and in the two others that I then read, The Challenge of Things and The Heart of Things), Grayling engages with everything from war and peace to contemporary arts and culture to personal and societal virtues. In very brief essays, he summarizes a wide range of thought about a particular issue – courage, say – and then offers an observation or two about its application to our modern circumstances.

He’s a very Renaissance-and-Enlightenment kind of guy – a champion of reason and an enemy of nonsense, possessed of a very keen eye about the ways that our assumptions and values play out in our day-to-day lives. Like I said, I thought he’d be right up your alley. Not so, though! How come?

Eric:

I like Grayling fine, and agree with him often, but I guess I’m just not sold on the collected-newspaper-columns-as-book idea. It’s basically 200 pages of drive-by commentary on a wide range of issues, each with a quick conclusion and very little argument. He’s like here’s a problem, here’s the answer, on to the next. It’s not thoughtful. And he moves so quickly across so many different topics that I never had a chance to commit myself to any single one. Maybe I just read it wrong. Maybe you’re supposed to go a chapter a day, like one of those devotional books. Were you pondering each with silent prayer or a snifter of port?

Matt:

Nah, I was gobbling this stuff down like crab legs at a seafood buffet. Part of it was the sheer ease – I knew I was gonna get a break every page or two, so I never felt burdened by the weight of The Whole Book. But I also liked the process of figuring out how all of these individual arguments add up to a larger worldview (or how the worldview generates arguments on such a sweeping range of topics). I share a lot of his views, but I hadn’t seen them extrapolated into such diverse territory before.

I’m surprised to hear you say that it isn’t thoughtful. I did encounter the occasional clunker, but for the most part, I thought Grayling did a nice job of summarizing lots of material and presenting well-reasoned, humane conclusions. Do you have any specifics in mind?

Eric:

Maybe “not thoughtful” is unfair. But Grayling’s mini-essays are so mini that he has to skip a lot of the process in order to keep them short. So his tendency is to build premises atop a mountain of pre-drawn conclusions that are taken as given. As long as you are willing to grant all of those premises, you can enjoy the essays. And the thing is, I am willing to grant them in almost every case. But I like to have access to the process, and I feel a little short-changed when I don’t.

Consider religion. Grayling has a chapter in The Reason of Things on religion, called “Religion,” and it’s three pages long. Three. To be clear, I am all about precision and concision in writing, especially when the material lends itself to generality and opacity. But there is something basically off-putting about a text that claims to cover a massive topic in such a bare minimum of words. It feels disrespectful to the material and hubristic in the writer.

And it’s not just religion that gets this passing treatment. Identity, Culture, Politics, Power, Liberty, War(!), Loss, and Nature offer just a short sampling of chapters that exceed no more than four pages each. (To his credit, Grayling, gives Sex a full fifteen.) How can these possibly do justice?

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