Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Three Hours

When the lights came up, someone in the next row asked, "How long was that movie?" Several of us laughed, and a man in that row replied, "It clocked in just under six hours." In fact, "A Hidden Life" runs to three hours. But that is a long time for a movie.

"A Hidden Life" has admirable scenery and handsome people well filmed. It does not tell one much about Franz Jägerstätter. One gathers that he objects to Hitler, that he is not a member of the Nazi party. His grounds of objection to taking an oath of loyalty to Hitler are not really clarified; a twenty-first-century audience will think the point obvious, whether or not the viewer can imagine facing the consequences he did.

John Lukacs gives about five pages to Jägerstätter in an essay collected in Remembered Past. Having read that, I knew as much about Jägerstätter before the film as after. I suppose that some viewers may have learned that he was a Catholic; if so, they wouldn't have got much information on how that shaped his conscience and decisions. I don't think that the reviews in the newpapers gave much context.

Really, my points of complaint are three. First, the movie is perhaps unfair to Jägerstätter's parish priest, who is shown as a temporizer, but who did some jail time in 1941. Second, the quotation from George Eliot shown at the end, on hidden lives that change the world seems to  miss the point--as numerous figures correctly told Jägerstätter in the movie, what he was doing made no difference to the course of history, did not contribute to ending the war a day sooner; the point is that he witnessed to the truth. Third, the story might have been better managed by a director other than Terrence Malick, whose strength seems to be scenery rather than character.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Resisting Amazon

Last week, we drove the short distance to Loyalty Books on Upshur Street NW, there to hear Katya Cegel discuss her book, From Chernobyl with Love, an account of her work as a journalist in the former Soviet Union from 1998 through 2002. Having heard the discussion, it seemed only right to buy a copy. At the register, we noticed How to Resist Amazon and Why, which I'd have described as slim pamphlet, but which its publisher Raven Books calls a "zine". We bought two copies, though we haven't decided who shall get the second.

Danny Caine, the proprietor of Raven Books, opts for volume rather than focus in the pamphlet. His account of the economics of the book trade is compelling enough--Amazon uses its power to enforce discounts that publishers will extend to nobody else; therefore Amazon can sell a popular novel at a price that would turn every sale into a $5 loss for Raven Books. The power Amazon brings against publishers, and the way it uses that power, extracting "all the traffic will bear" as in The Octopus, has been in my view reason enough to avoid purchasing from Amazon. I hadn't thought much about the price pressure on local retailers.

Yet last winter I heard a young man ask the manager at Bridge Street Books whether he matched Amazon's prices. The manager said, No, I'm not subsidized by the government the way they are. Amazon does get favorable rates from the United States Postal Service, but in truth the book business is probably subsidized more by Amazon Web Services, a remarkably profitable undertaking, than by the USPS.

I had much rather buy books at a local bookstore, preferably for cash, than on-line. I am fortunate to live in a city with several independent general-interest bookstores. But some of them seem to have limited options with their distributors, so that a special order is impossible or impractical. Still, one can sometimes buy directly from the publisher. It might not arrive as quickly as it would from Amazon, but if the book is likely to take some weeks to read, the difference between one-day shipping and five-day shipping matters little.

(Ms. Cegel's book is quite readable. I should say that it tells more about the lives of young and nervy expatriates than it does about Latvia or Ukraine. Well, one can learn about the early days of Baltic independence or the lead-up to the Orange Revolution from other sources. This is the first book I have noticed that recounts the adventures of a journalist willing to go down an insufficiently secured coal mine in the Donbass region or drink home-distilled vodka in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Algebra, Again

It seems to me that Americans, at least those in the Atlantic drainage, have an odd relationship with algebra.   About seven years ago, Andrew Hacker argued in the The New York Times that algebra should not be required in high school.This exercised quite a few people for some days, after which it was probably forgotten as thoroughly as the formulas of Algebra I.

Last month, Jay Matthews suggested in The Washington Post that Algebra II should no longer be required. His suggestion received many responses for and against. I did take Algebra II in high school, though it I don't know that it was a required class there. It was third in the sequence of math classes, but only for students who had done well enough in Algebra I and Plane Geometry; other students took Trigonometry.

Nor do I remember what the class covered. I remember the instructor, and I remember my resentment at a poor grade for a proof that he considered too compressed.  (I'm sure that he was right.) But what we did that was in advance of Algebra I, I can't tell you. Maybe we did more work with equations of two or more variables. I recall that a couple of the young, now in their upper 20s or approaching middle age, mentioned logarithms when I asked them about Algebra II ten or twenty years ago.

Maybe it isn't just Americans, or hasn't always been. In his autobiography, Stendhal wrote (Chapter XXVI)
From [M. Chabert] I learnt about Euler and his problems on the number of eggs a peasant woman brings to market when a rascal robs her of one-fifth, and then she drops half the rest, etc, etc.

This opened my mind; I caught a glimpse of what it meant to use the instrument called algebra. I'm hanged if anyone had ever told me about this; M. Dupuy was always making pompous phrases on the subject, but never told us, quite simply: it's a division of labour which works miracles like all divisions of labour, and allows the mind to concentrate all its strength on a single aspect of things, on one of their qualities.
 But Stendhal was still bothered in middle age by the consideration that the multiplication of two negative numbers produces a positive one. He accepted it, on the practical ground that such calculations form part of others yielding true results; but clearly it still bothered him. The illustration that accompanies his statement of perplexity in Chapter XXXIV is much too complicated: he hasn't divided the labor far enough  Clearly his teachers weren't up to explaining.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Overthinking it, Maybe

For the next meeting of the book club, we chose the novel The Door by Magda Szabo. I thought it an excellent novel. The novel is clearly placed in space, taking place almost wholly in Budapest, but it is less clearly placed in time. I could not quite place the span of almost twenty years in which the action occurs.

Then I noticed at a critical point in the plot the statement that "Easter fell early that year, at the very beginning of April". Within the plausible range of years for that point, the two earliest dates of Easter were April 2, 1972, and April 3, 1983. For other reasons, 1983 seemed the most probable date. I was pleased to have decided this.

The pleasure lasted for about five minutes after I walked away from the computer. Who is to say that the assertion of an early Easter had anything to do with a specific year, and not with the weather imagined by the writer? W.B. Stanford, editor of a Macmillan edition of The Odyssey, had some dismissive remarks about scholars who claim to identify the islands visited along Odysseus's way,  referring to them as "those who think they can map fairyland". Am I trying a similar enterprise?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Last winter I heard the eulogist of Abbot Aidan Shea say that in one of the upper level Latin classes about 1960, he had been unable to muster enthusiasm for Virgil, and that Father Shea had put him to reading Juvenal, whom he found more sympathetic: "sarcastic, rude, vulgar, right up my alley".

This weekend I happened to pull from the shelves Heinrich Böll's What's to Become of the Boy?: Or, Something to Do with Books, where I noticed, of one of Böll's high-school classes in Cologne in the late 1930s,
I don't know whether Juvenal was in our curriculum, or whether Bauer had recognized how topical he was and chosen him for that reason: in Juvenal, arbitrariness, despotism, depravity, corruption of political mores, the decline of the Republican idea, were described with ample clarity, even a few "June 30's", staged by the Praetorians, and allusions to Tigellinus.
Fortunate are the generations that can appreciate Juvenal for his sarcasm without finding him too topical.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Books as Gifts, Again

Suppose that you are a young intellectual working in Washington, D.C., for the minimum wage, $14 per hour. Suppose further that you wish to give a friend a copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation as a gift. Politics and Prose has it on its shelves for $25. The book will cost you less than two hours' wages before tax.

The Reformation has 812 pages. According to my recollection, twenty pages per hour would be a very fast rate for reading it with comprehension, but let's assume that the friend can read it at that rate. It will take the friend forty hours to read it, twenty times as long as it took you to earn the money to buy it. Now, if the friend is also employed at the minimum wage, and would have been likely in any case to acquire the book, he or she is two hours to the good. If your friend hadn't thought of reading the book, but does so dutifully, that will be three weeks of reading at two hours per night, not previously budgeted for.

This sort of consideration makes me think twice before giving books as gifts. It also gives me a bias in favor of books that can be picked up and put down--collections of essays for example. This is not to say that I wouldn't give someone a copy of The Reformation--which, after all, is admirably organized in chapters of about twelve pages--or a similarly hefty book. But I would have to know the recipient's taste very well.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Three and a Half Hours

In the time it takes to see the movie "The Irishman", a minute under three and half hours, one can
  • If suitably fit--under 35, and putting in reasonable mileage--run a marathon.
  • See "The Marriage of Figaro", and depending on the length of the intermissions maybe make it out of the Kennedy Center parking garage.
  • Read any one of Hadji Murad, A River Runs Through It, one of Plato's medium-length dialogues, or (aloud) two books of the Iliad.
  • Walk from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, with time for lunch along the way.
It is only fair to say that running a marathon will leave one with sore legs for a couple of days.

"The Irishman" struck me as being in some ways an accumulation of the weaknesses of the 1970 generation of movie making. It has actors who were young in 1970 playing in 2020 the young men of 1950. It has a Mafia of near omniscience and omnipotence. It has notably asinine assertions about two generations of the Kennedy family. (In a different movie from this generation, the CIA would have murdered JFK for wishing to pull us out of Vietnam; in this one, the mob votes him into office to overthrow Castro, helps him to stage the Bay of Pigs, and perhaps shoots him for failing to carry it off.)

I have wasted a lot of equivalent chunks of time in my years, and will soon enough stop grudging the time lost to "The Irishman". The man who strikes me as having a legitimate grievance is Jack Goldsmith, who makes a compelling case that his stepfather has been libeled.