Thursday, December 30, 2010

The State of First Things, January 2011

Next in a Continuing Series:

A) Must Read Articles

B) Flawed, but Worth Reading

I wish I was exaggerating in the above.  When I first started this series, I was wondering if my impression that there were only a few truly exceptional articles per issue was accurate.  I wondered if reading a magazine in which only, say, 2 of the articles were great and a few more were worth reading was a good use of time.  I have now reached the point where I am hoping that there will be at least a few articles that are worth my time.  This last issue didn't even rise to that standard.  Seriously, there wasn't a single article which made me think anything other than, "What was the point of that?"  Even the book reviews were bad--only one of the books reviewed was even worth reviewing (Roger Scruton's new book on pessimism), but the reviewer forgot to, you know, review the book and instead just had an axe to grind which was ground along with a summary of what one could learn about the book from reading the dust jacket.

But, I did notice something extraordinary in this issue.  Joseph Bottum is no longer the editor.  James Nuechterlein is listed as the Interim Editor.  I was shocked.  And looking back, this change happened in the last issue.  So, we now have two issues edited by an interim editor--and here is the shocking thing: Nowhere in either issue is there a mention of this change--you have to look at the masthead to see any change--there is not even the pro forma "Joseph Bottum has left to pursue another project. We wish him well" dismissal.  Nothing at all.  So, I did a cursory Google search--it seems the change was made in late October and there is still no word about the matter.  Nothing.  Nobody has said a thing.  This is incredibly odd.

The timing of this change is interesting.  It seems to have happened right after the disastrous College issue came out.  I suspect--with, I hasten to add absolutely no evidence--that there is a connection.  If the Powers That Be at First Things had the same reaction which I had to that issue, then the Powers that Be may have realized that First Things was going downhill fast.  But, even still, if Bottum was fired as editor, there is no excuse for not saying something, anything about it.  And if he wasn't fired as editor, then the lack of any notice is serious wrong.  The whole way in which this has been handled is lacking in the appearance of  Christan Charity, which for a journal of religion and public life is a pretty serious failure.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


A veritable potpourri of topics:

1. One class done, one to go.

2. New Year's Eve is near at hand.  Of all the major holidays, this is easily my least favorite.  Janet, whom I love dearly, hates New Year's Eve--always has; always will.  She sees absolutely no point in  staying up late for no apparent reason, and New Year's Eve is all about staying up late.  I started dating her in high school--she hated New Year's Eve then.  Now, I have no particular fascination with New Year's Eve, so it wouldn't bother me in the least to simply skip worrying about it.  But, then social expectations intrude--one is expected to do something exciting on New Year's Eve. Turning down invitations for New Year's Eve is acceptable when one can say, "Sorry, but we already agreed to do something else."  But, try turning down a New Year's Eve invitation with, "Sorry, we are just staying home and ignoring the whole holiday."  We do celebrate New Year's Day, though--does that make everything OK?

3. I do have fond memories of camping out on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena on New Year's Eve--I did this a few times in high school.  Great night--and it's fun to watch the Rose Parade in person.

4. Christmas was great, as always.  I got Madden '11 from my mom--that is a tradition which dates back to the early years of Madden.  It's still the best video game.

5. Emma was accepted to Mount Holyoke a couple days before Christmas.  No shock there.  I bought her a Mount Holyoke sweatshirt for Christmas.  So, now it's official.

6. Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita was the last book we read in my tutorial in the Fall semester.  I am still trying to figure out how to write a commentary on it.  An utterly odd book.  It's the second time I read it--but the first time I read a horrid translation, so this time was much, much better.  It is wryly funny and has some great mocking of the Soviet state.  Satan is one of the main characters, but he is nothing like any Satan in any other book.  Satan's coterie is a bunch of amoral mischievous types.  In other words, Satan brings little evil, but a great deal of wrongness.  There is a subplot about Pontius Pilate which is cleverly done and quite interesting.  But, what does the book mean?  It clearly draws analogies to Goethe's Faust, but maybe it is a satire on Goethe too.  Again, it's hard to tell.  In the end, it strikes me as a very clever book.  I think it is nihilistic in the end, but I could easily be persuaded otherwise.

7.  Oddly, while typing that last paragraph, "Anarchy in the U.K." was playing on my iPod.  Mikhail Bulgakov and Johnny Rotten--what a combo.

8.  I thought about providing a YouTube link for the song, but I have a hard time imagining that there is a YouTube video which is suitable for a general audience.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Letter

I am grading today (sigh).  I really hate having to grade final exams at this time of year.  But, I have been remiss in acknowledging Christmas herein, so herewith is a copy of the Christmas Letter we sent out in our Christmas cards this year.  There was a card with it, but you can read all about the card in the letter.  And, if you want to see said card (and, let me hasten to add, that there is no real reason to want to see said card), then the means to accomplish that feat can be deduced from the contents of the letter.
And, so Merry Christmas!

(And yes, the following is the start of the letter--it begins in medias res for no real purpose)

            A Word of Explanation is in Order.  The Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle (which the Reader now holds in Hand (unless, of course, Said Reader has placed Said Epistle upon a Lectern before perusing it (though, Truth Be Told, Your Humble Narrator is Reasonably Certain (but not Metaphysically Certain) that the Reader does not actually use a Lectern for Purposes of Reading Yuletide Greetings))), due to Events Beyond the Control or Desire of Your Humble Narrator (details given below (said parenthetical Aside was added for those Readers who have Developed a Distrust of Your Humble Narrator’s Desire (or Ability) to Provide Relevant Details in a Timely Fashion)), must now be Rechristened as The Occasional Hartley Household Christmas Epistle due to the Lack of Any Such Epistle in The Year of Our Lord 2009, which, as the Reader is No Doubt Aware, Caused an Insignificant Amount of Depression and Woe to be Spread Throughout the Land in What Should Otherwise have been a Season of Goodwill and Cheer.   Gentle Reader, Your Humble Narrator would like to say “Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” but is Prevented from doing so by Honesty, that Cruel Mistress. The Fault Lies Elsewhere.
            [Insert Dramatic Pause.]
            Either Dupin or Poirot would have already solved the Case, which those Readers not Bestowed with Equivalently Copious Numbers of Little Grey (note British Spelling in honor of Dame Agatha) Cells may still find Befuddling.  The Clue, the vital Clue, is contained in the Same Envelope which delivered the Letter now being perused to the Domicile of the Reader.  It is (pause) The Picture Card (insert dramatic shudder and gasps of shock). 
            For Reasons Your Humble Narrator does not Comprehend, Lily, the second Hartley Offspring, proving that the Apple Does sometimes Fall Very Far from the Tree, decided last year that the Hartley Christmas Card lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, that the inclusion of the Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle did not add enough of that Mysterious Substance, and thus what was necessary to Bring Joy to the Reader was a Christmas Card which contained not cheery scenes of the Birth of Christ nor faux amusing portraits of Saint Nicholas nor even sappy scenes of winter, but rather what the Reader Truly needed in order to Make Christmas Complete, what would fill that Void which the Reader feels every Yuletide knowing that something is Lacking at Christmas, something which even Linus’ Wise Words does not Fill, what would Return that Joy the Reader recalls feeling when given a Video Game Console as a small child, what the Reader Desired More than Any Other Possible Gift at Christmas was A Picture Card Containing Pictures of the Hartley Household.  Lily, quite obviously, will Never be Known as a Humble Narrator.
            Now the Clever Reader suspects a Flaw in the Reasoning Heretofore Offered:  Why should Lily’s sudden Desire to Send a Picture Card, coupled with the Long Suffering Wife of Your Humble Narrator’s (LSWYHN’s) consent to Said Scheme, prevent the Annual Hartley Household Christmas Epistle from being Penned and sent Out along with Said Card?  Your Humble Narrator is Glad that the Reader Asked (or, to be Accurate, that the Humble Narrator has pretended that the Reader asked).   While Many of the Recipients of The Hartley Household’s Annual Christmas Greetings have managed to Obtain photographs of Themselves and send them Out to One and All, Organizing such an Activity Proved beyond the Capabilities of the Hartley Household Last Year.  Now, as Longtime Readers of this Space are Acutely Aware, the Problem is Not the Hectic Activities of the Hartley Household, since Said Household has heretofore never had any Activities of Note.
            But Fear not.  After two Years of Trying, Lily did manage to Create a Picture Card which the Reader has Undoubtedly already placed in a Receptacle Suitable for Containing Items With the Degree of Artistic Merit Evidenced in a Picture Card.  [Insert Loud Hosannas.] 
            Alas, the Sound of the Hosannas is Quickly Followed by Two Notes of Puzzlement arising from the Great Picture Card Debacle of 2009 (henceforth GPCD2009). The First Puzzle is Seen on the Picture Card of 2010 (not to be confused with the nonexistent Picture Card of 2009).  Until Recently, Your Humble Narrator was Apparently Deluded in Believing that there were only Five members of the Hartley Household, but the Picture Card (which Cannot Lie) clearly has Six (6!) names listed.  Dante seems to have Been Added to the Hartley Roster.  Now Dante is, as the Observant Reader with even a passing Acquaintance with Genetics has Observed, not one of the natural offspring of Your Humble Narrator and the LSWYHN.  Indeed, until the Picture Card, Your Humble Narrator was inclined to Think that Dante was, not to mince words, a Dog.  Said Dog would have normally been included in the Livestock Report of the Epistle.  So, why has Dante been elevated to the same lofty status as the Hartley Offspring?  Your Humble Narrator is Seriously disturbed by this turn of events.  Back when there were only Three Hartley Offspring, Your Humble Narrator was Inclined to note that the Average Intelligence, Charm, Wit, and Ability of the Hartley Offspring was Simply Stratospheric.  But, the presence of Dante in that otherwise Lofty Company has seriously lowered the Average.  Dante is, not to mince words, not nearly as bright, charming or well-behaved as the other Offspring, though he is as Tidy as the Others.
            And, speaking of the other Offspring, Your Humble Narrator turns to his second Puzzle:  Why does Lily, who at the age of 15 lives not on Planet Earth, but has moved to Planet Facebook, feel the need to send out a picture of the Hartley Household?  Lily already has copious numbers of pictures on her Facebook page, and since all but 163 residents of Planet Earth are Facebook friends with Lily, anyone desiring to see a picture of the Hartley Household need only look there.   When not designing Picture Cards, though, Lily is continuing to turn into a ridiculously intelligent and attractive young lady, whose artistic abilities are simply staggering to behold.  (Exhibits are freely available on the aforementioned Facebook page. (Yes, that is the penultimate commercial for Facebook.))
            Emma is now a senior in High school, and would like the Reader to know that she loathes the Picture Card.  Emma likes horses and Dante; said information is vital for those of the Readers who would like to interact with Emma; speak ill of either at your peril.  One year from now (assuming the Occasional becomes the Annual again), Your Humble Narrator will be faced with a Most Difficult Moral Dilemma:  Do children in College merit attention in the Annual Christmas Epistle?  Your Humble Narrator will commence a detailed study of the norms in this Regard during the course of the Year To Come.  So, let the Reader be Forewarned:  Should Emma vanish from the next Installment of this Epistle, it may be due to the Dictates of Tradition and not, as the Reader would Otherwise Assume, to Alien Abduction.
            Clara is finishing sixth grade this year, which will bring about the End of Hartley Household’s Association with Elementary school.  (Dante failed out of Puppy Obedience School, and has been abandoned to Perpetual Ignorance).  Clara is Brilliant, Funny and likes, no Loves, Harry Potter.  She has also finally arrived at the Age where she Dislikes being Discussed in the Annual Christmas Letter.
            The Powers that Be have Decreed that the Following paragraph merits an Advisory Warning.  Caution: May Contain Actual Substance.  Janet, breaking with Family Tradition, actually did something Worthy of Note this year.  The Annual Christmas Letter may never be the Same.  Terra Verde Nursery is now open for business (both on Planet Earth and, thanks to Lily, on Planet Facebook).  Janet provides plants of Exquisite Beauty to Households other than her own.  In addition to her Entrepreneurial Activities, she also managed to keep the Hartley Household functioning.  The latter feat is more impressive than the former.
            And with that, Your Humble Narrator bids you, as always, A Very Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Must See TV

A colleague just showed me this.  It's incredible.  Don't even think about skipping the link.

On Robots

Consider the word "Robot."  (Yes, I know, not the most promising beginning for a blog post.  After all, why should anyone consider the word "robot"?  (Thanks for asking that.  You are of course, correct.  There is no plausible reason you would want to consider the word "robot" right now.  (But, then again, if you wanted to be reading something which has some hope of being relevant to your current thoughts or your life, you really shouldn't be reading this blog in the first place.)))  Everyone knows what a robot is.  Even if you speak a different language than English, it is likely that you use the word "robot."

Whence came the word?  It was introduced to the world in 1920 in Karel Capek's play, R.U.R.  (For the pedantic, Karel didn't invent the word; his older brother did.)  I have known this bit of trivia for quite some time.  I recently read the play.  I am sorry to report that the trivia is far more interesting than the play.

Indeed, the play is so downright silly that it is a wonder the word caught on.  Much to my surprise, the first introduction of the worked "robot" to the word is in a play about robots taking over the world.  It also has robots which are indistinguishable from humans.  The first robots were placid servants.  Then a do-gooder convinces the makers of robots to give them more human emotions.  The emotion our do-gooder wants to introduce is...are you  ready for this?...irritation with humanity.  So, the robots become irritated and decide they really hate humans and so they exterminate humanity.  I wish I was making this up.  Even better--the robots in the play are more human than the humans in the play.  The humans have zero depth of character; the robots at least have something interesting about them.

In short, we owe the use  the word "robot" to a really bad play.  I suppose the play was a lot better in the early 1920s before everything in it became cliche.  Maybe the problem is just that all old science fiction looks really silly later on.  (Exhibit A here.  I used to really like that show; I haven't seen it since I was a kid, though, and it is hard to imagine that I would enjoy it now.)

While on something resembling the subject:  why is the idea of a robot which look like a human so appealing to people?  Isn't it creepy to imagine having a robot around which could not be distinguished form a human?  Why would anyone want such a thing?  And does anyone still think it is a good idea after watching Blade Runner?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And Justice For All

Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Perhaps my biggest surprise about this book is that I had never heard of it before my father-in-law handed me his copy and told me I would like it.  He was right.  I liked it.  A lot.

Sandel teaches philosophy at Harvard to a packed house.  It's not hard to see why.  The first 8 (out of 10) chapters in this book are undoubtedly his lectures, and they are great.  He has a wonderful ability to get right to the heart of he matter by introducing the well-chosen example in a good manner to illustrate a philosophical problem. (Many of the philosophical problems he uses are commonly used--I have used several of them myself--but Sandel has a pitch-perfect way of introducing the problems.)  The chapter on Kant is easily the best introduction to Kant I have ever read.

The book goes off the rails a bit in the last two chapters when it moves from Dispassionate Lecture Mode into Advocacy Mode.  That switch could have been a disaster, but it (surprisingly) wasn't all that annoying--underneath the sudden change to a tone of "Let me tell you the Right way to think about it" there is still the foundation of the dispassionate lecture on the topic.

So, what is Justice?  After reading the book, I am now fully convinced there is not a good, universal answer to that.  Sandel identifies three main streams of thought: the utilitarian, the freedom advocate (both libertarian and Rawlsian variants), and the Aristotelian.  I'm an Aristotelian in this sense--Justice is doing the Right thing even if the Right thing does not make people happier (the utilitarian answer) or does not provide more "freedom" (however defined).  But, giving that answer does not solve the problem at all--which is a bigger problem than Sandel wants to admit.  He too fancies himself an Aristotelian, but his Aristotelianism and mine are quite different.  I have no hesitance in saying Justice is doing what God wants us to do.  Pleasing God is the ultimate aim to which all of our actions should aim--it is, to be technical, the telos of our lives.  Sandel has some sort of seemingly mushy communitarianism as his telos.  (He may actually have a less mushy view on the matter--this all comes up in the last two chapters of the book when the argument gets fuzzier.)

So, once I have a telos, I can answer the abstract questions of Justice.  Should I torture a terrorist's cute little 5 year old daughter to get him to reveal the location of a nuclear bomb in New York City?  Well, Justice is doing what God wants done in that situation.  Or, for Sandel,  Justice is doing whatever it is that communitarians want done in that situation.  See how easy that is?

When faced with actually making real decisions in real time, it is useful to have a starting place-- a view of Justice from which reasoning about the matter needs to start.  But, knowing your starting place is really not enough.  For a utilitarian to say the Just outcome is the one that maximizes the sum of human happiness is nice in the abstract, but not terribly useful in the concrete.  Rawls...well, I better not get started on Rawls...I never liked Rawlsian solutions.  At all.

This lack of  answers is what makes philosophical matters so ultimately intellectually fulfilling.  Sandel's book tries too hard to wrap up the discussion so that it looks like there is an answer to the question of Justice.  But, there is no answer.  And if there were an answer, then it wouldn't be nearly as fun to think about the question.  Nor would it be as fun to read Sandel's book.  Which, by the way, I highly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The State of First Things, December 2010

A. Must Read Articles:
Sadly, none.

B. Worth Reading
1. Goldman, "Why We Can't hear Wagner's Music"
 I almost put this in the first category, simply because it is sad to see that category empty.  (I weep for First Things.)  But, in the end, the conclusion isn't really all that earth-shattering.  Nonetheless, the article was a very interesting discussion of Wagner.  Wagner is a curious case: as Shaw put it, Wagner's music is better than it sounds.  There is much that is truly great in any Wagner opera, but, truth be told, there is much that is overdone and long, long, long.  Goldman argues that the very length of the matter is the point of Wagner--he deliberately breaks the idea of time in music.  Western Music before Wagner is the imposition of order; Western music after Wagner is the destruction of order.  We can't hear Wagner anymore because we no longer expect order in music.  So, where does that leave us?  Oddly, still eagerly looking forward to seeing The Valkyrie when it comes to the Met.

2. Altman, "Whit Stillman is Running Late"
Curiously, this article was written for someone exactly like me.  If you have never heard of Stillman, the article would have been boring and pointless (I suspect).  If you actually know something about Stillman, then the article would have been boring and pointless (I suspect).  But, if like me, you had recently watched Stillman's first movie, Metropolitan (which I mentioned in a post some time back), really enjoyed that move, had no idea who the director was, and so learned something about him in the article, then it was a pretty interesting article.  Stillman only made three movies.  Reading the article made me want to watch another one of his movies--so I did.  The Last Days of Disco is also pretty good--not as good as Metropolitan, but still pretty good.  His third movie, Barcelona, is now in my Netflix queue.  He is working on a fourth movie; from the sound of it, it may actually get finished, but don't hold your breath.  At any rate, it is better to watch Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco than to read this article, but after watching one of them, the article is nice.

3. Samuels, "The Perfect Harmony" and Weigel, "Fail, Britannia"
Neither of these articles alone had any particular measure of Greatness, but combined, they are quite good.  (They are published sequentially in the magazine, but the first one is in the new glossy section and the second one is in the old-fashioned, not-glossy section (if you have seen a recent issue of First Things, you know what that means).  So, it isn't clear if the editor knew the two articles made a pair of bookends.)  The general point of the two combined:  Modern Leaders in the West are a feckless bunch, faced on the one side by genuinely malevolent people like Ahmadinejad and on the other side by genuinely benevolent people like Benedict.  Western leaders are, in other words, neither hot nor cold. It is pretty sad to see an unwillingness to side with good against evil--the pair of articles makes it pretty clear that this is happening.  In the face of evil, the West cannot stand up and oppose it.  In the face of good, the West pushes back in all sorts of silly and, truth be told, pathetic ways. 

Come to think of it, perhaps items 2 and 3 are related.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Kingdom Far and Clear

The pleasant surprise of the month:

Mark Helprin, A Kingdom Far and Clear

Mark Helprin is one of the best prose stylists writing today.  I have read a number of his books, and they are always great.  Truly Great.  Indeed, Winter's Tale is on my list of recent books which I am absolutely certain will still be read in 100 years.  If you like Great Literature and haven't read it, you are in for a treat.

All that being said, I wasn't expecting all that much from A Kingdom Far and Clear.  This volume puts together Helprin's three Children's books--the Swan Lake trilogy.  I hadn't read any of those three books, but when I saw they had been published together in one volume, I figured it would be nice to read.  Was I ever wrong about that.  It wasn't nice to read.  It was incredible.  Stunning.  Jaw-droppingly good.

First off, it isn't really children's literature at all--it is a fairy tale for adults.  Children would like it too, but it is really a serious Fairy Tale.  (Fairy Tales get far too little respect in the modern age.)  Helprin writes with what can best be described as Achingly Beautiful prose--I really can't think of a better description than that even though I know it doesn't really describe it in a way that would be comprehensible for someone who has never read Helprin.

The trilogy works really well--each book has a different narrator, but the three stories are part of one giant story which has everything you would want in a good fairy tale--heroes and villains and beauty and sacrifice.  It crystallizes what is Good and highlights what is Evil.  Moral choices must be made, and they are not necessarily easy to make.

The only possible discordant note is that the underlying Beautiful world for which Helprin is arguing is a world of religious morality and political freedom.  I suspect my Marxist colleagues will resent the fact that they identify a little bit too much with the villains.

This is most certainly a book I will read again--I am curious to see how much of the symbolism becomes apparent only on a second reading--I have no idea how tightly crafted the story is.  But it doesn't really matter--the memory of reading this book for the first time is indelibly etched into my mind--one of those rare reading experiences I will never forget.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yuletide Quinzaines

A Quinzaine for this Yule by Ezra Pound

I have been perusing this short volume of poetry of late.  Despite its title, there isn't any Christmas poetry in it.  Nor is there a Quinzaine in it. 

It's relatively early Pound (1908), back in his pre-Canto days when he was at least making a nod in the direction of comprehensibility in his poetry.  Quite a few poems about Venice, which are nice, but I suspect they are even nicer if you have been to Venice. 

My favorite Poem:


No man hath dared to write this thing as yet,
And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great
At times pass through us,
And we are melted into them, and are not
Save reflexions of their souls.
Thus am I Dante for a space and am
One Francois Villon, ballad-lord and thief
Or am such holy ones I may not write,
Lest blasphemy be writ against my name;
This for an instant and the flame is gone.

'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
And into this some form projects itself:
Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
And as the clear space is not if a form's
Imposed thereon,
So cease we from all being for the time,
And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on. 

That's a nice image--and it's nice to think that the immortals do live on in brief moments in the lives of those around.  It is also presents an interesting thought--do we have an obligation to enable those Masters of the Soul to live?  If nobody ever gave a space for Dante, we would obviously be the poorer for it.  But what about Villon?  I've never read Villon.  Should I feel some obligation to do so? 

And what about Ezra Pound himself?  Now he is a hard case.  He wrote some really interesting poetry, but he was, to put it bluntly, a traitor.  He was a paid propagandist for the Italian Fascists during World War 2 and he wrote some great poetry.  Do we laud him?  Now normally I wouldn't really wonder about such a thing, but Ezra Pound has an odd hold on me--he is from Hailey, Idaho, a town which my grandfather spent a good part of his career developing.  I have spent many a vacation in Hailey.  So, can I consider him a home-town hero or do his traitorous activities mean that he is the black sheep of the family?  Hailey, Idaho doesn't brag about him much--there is a little display about him in the back of the Hailey museum, but it isn't prominently displayed. (You can see it here.  On the drop-down menu, pick the "Military Heritage/Ezra Pound" option.  It is the display case in the blue alcove.)  Indeed, I have often wondered how many residents of Hailey even know that a world-class poet is from their town.

So, when I read Ezra Pound and he thereby occupies the translucent sphere within me, am I bringing light or darkness to the world?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Should five percent appear too small

Last night I finished up the last book I assigned in a class this semester (review forthcoming at a later date) and I engaged in my annual ritual of reading A Christmas Carol.  The end of the semester is obviously nigh.

Now I have to turn my attention to picking out the books I am gong to assign next semester. It's odd in a way--during the semester, my reading list is largely dictated by the books I have assigned.  When the semester ends, my reading list becomes terribly serendipitous.  Some day I want to work out a class in which the reading is entirely whatever I feel like reading at the moment--but I am pretty sure such a course would a) have a hard time getting approved for college credit and b) have a hard time attracting students.  (Imagine the description--"We will be reading whatever the professor decides to read at any given moment.")

But, back to the last semester. I have not yet reviewed two books which I finished weeks ago:
Taxing Ourselves, by Slemrod and Bakija
Animal Spirits by Akerlof and Shiller
Both books present the same serious problem for reviewing:  they are both encyclopedic, with no natural hook or anything which particularly struck my fancy.

Taxing Ourselves is meant to be an encyclopedia of taxation.  It's subtitle: A Citizen's Guide to the Debate over Taxes.  It is now in its 4th edition.  It is comprehensive.  Why are taxes the way they are?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of all the reform proposals?  And so on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  I haven't yet heard whether the students liked this book--I think I would have liked it as an undergrad, but reading it now wasn't all that fun--I didn't learn anything.  That's the problem with books which aim to be an encyclopedia--there really isn't any new argument or information in the book.  But, if you are fascinated with taxes and you don't know much about them, then this book has a good chance of satisfying your yearning to know more.

Animal Spirits also aimed to be comprehensive, but it was a failure.  (My students liked it a lot more than I did, though.)  Animal Spirits is a technical economic term:  the Animal Spirits are waves of optimism and pessimism which affect human behavior--one can be bullish, thinking the world looks wonderful, or bearish, thinking everything is a Lost Cause, and said attitude will affect how much you consume, for example.  This book falls into the genre "Take an interesting economic idea and try to force the idea to explain Everything." But, the idea doesn't explain Everything.  So, first, the authors redefine Animal Spirits to mean "Human psychology" and then they to show that the way people think affects the way they act.  Shocking, no?  But, that isn't enough--then the authors need to show that the way humans think means that the way Other economists talk about lots of things isn't right.  But, that isn't enough either, so then the authors need to show that if everyone thought about things the way the Enlightened Authors do, then we would have all sorts of government polices that look suspiciously like the sort of policies which would be endorsed by, say, Obama.  And, lo and behold, Akerlof was formerly an adviser to Kerry when he was running for President.  So, much of the book just made me think, "That's enough.  You can stop now.  You've pushed this idea way past the breaking point."  But, like I said, my students liked it--well at least the ones who have told me about it--so maybe it isn't as bad as I thought it was.

And just to end on a high note.