The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is going on the road for a few days, so posting here will be light. What will not be light is the backpack I’m lugging around, because it is chock-full of the books I plan on reading now that I am no longer writing.
To elaborate a little bit: last week I handed in a draft copy of “The Ideas Industry” to my publisher. If you ever aspire to write a book yourself, let me assure you that this stage of the process is wonderful. There’s nothing like the feeling of lightness that comes when the manuscript you’ve labored on for years is now somebody else’s problem. Sure, I’ll have to revise the manuscript again, I can’t revise it right now, now that my editor has it — that would be fruitless. All I can do is wait for feedback. With classes over and me not wanting to jump into another large-scale project for a spell, that means… book-reading!!
So, here are the four books I’m planning on reading as we near the summer solstice. In no particular order:
1) Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War. I teach Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War every other year or so, but I confess that I’ve been slow to read any of the secondary literature on the war itself. This is long overdue, because as fascinating as Thucydides is, he has his biases just like all authors. I thought about trying to read Kagan’s four-volume history of the war, but settled with this one-volume precise he wrote in 2004.
2) Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team. What happens when two sabermetricians are allowed to run an independent league baseball team for a season? Lindbergh and Miller, of FiveThirtyEight and Baseball Prospectus, decided to find out. I have seen nothing but glowing reviews for this just-released book, and it seems like the perfect summer read.
3) Michael Cohen, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division. Given the current state of American politics, I’m thinking that reading a book that covers the most tumultuous election of the past 50 years (maybe the 2008 election comes close) would be a good idea. Kudos to Cohen, a columnist for the Boston Globe, for having the good sense to have this book come out this year.
4) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The truth is that even professors have books that they know they should have read but have not gotten around to doing so. This book by Arendt falls in my shame pile. And it might have stayed there too, but for me stumbling across an old Corey Robin LRB essay, which contained this provocative point:
Many people believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism. ‘The East is a career,’ Disraeli wrote. And so was the Holocaust, according to Arendt. ‘What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.’ Genocide, she insisted, is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid; if it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted….
In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neocons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.
I’m in the perfect intellectual mood to be troubled — which means it’s time to read Arendt.