Links and Comments: Unread Books; Psychology and Logic; GOP Paranoia; Political Extremes

From recent weeks’ NYT.

Essay by Kevin Mims: All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That. The print title, October 14, was “The Importance of Unread Books” subtitled “Why a personal library should include books you’ll never get around to finishing.”

He cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan:

Taleb argues that a personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

The writer prefers “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read”, but also considers those books, like reference works, that one consults but never truly finishes.

In my own case, I have given into exigencies of life and circumstance to cull my collection of books, several times over the years — and I’ve always regretted it. It always turns out there is some book I discover an interest in looking at, a book I had but sold off. At least these days — unlike a couple decades ago — it is relatively easy to find and re-acquire virtually any book, via the internet. As I’ve done several times for books I once had…

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Ivory Tower essay, published Sept. 30: Unpublished and Untenured, a Philosopher Inspired a Cult Following.

Whose book is Thinking and Being, summarizing ideas culled over decades.

…In other words, the distinction between psychology and logic collapses. Logic is not a set of rules for how to think; it is how we think, just not in a way that can be captured in conventional scientific terms. Thinking emerges as a unique and peculiar activity, something that is part of the natural world, but which cannot be understood in the manner of other events in the natural world. Indeed, Kimhi sees his book, in large part, as lamenting “the different ways in which philosophers have failed to acknowledge — or even denied — the uniqueness of thinking.”

I’m not sure I’d go this far, but an essential facet of my learning and thinking in the past decade or so is how the human mind perceives reality on its own terms, and not necessarily through logic or any perception of actual reality.

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Published Oct 9th: Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics, subtitled “Republicans are an authoritarian regime in waiting”.

It’s impossible to keep up with all the blisteringly obvious condemnations of everything our despicable president says and does every day — and the observations of his fans, who cheer his every travesty — but this Krugman column strikes a deeper chord that perhaps helps understand it.

(We’re living in history. Not in a good way.)

What’s going on here? At one level, this isn’t new. Conspiracy theorizing has been a part of American politics from the beginning. Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964 and cited examples running back to the 18th century. Segregationists fighting civil rights routinely blamed “outside agitators” — especially northern Jews — for African-American protests.

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In contrast, fellow NYT columnist David Brooks keeps searching for answers, in a pop-psychology way. From Oct. 16th: The Rich White Civil War, subtitled “A smarter look at America’s divide.”

He considers the two extremes of a research report about voters, on a scale of seven; the extremes are “Progressive Activists” on the left and “Devoted Conservatives” on the right, 8% and 6% of the population respectively.

Devoted Conservatives subscribe to a Hobbesian narrative. It’s a dangerous world. Life is nasty, brutish and short. We need strict values and strong authority to keep us safe.

Progressive Activists, on the other hand, subscribe to a darkened Rousseauian worldview. People may be inherently good, but the hierarchical structures of society are awful. The structures of inequality and oppression have to be dismantled.

These narratives are familiar from works by Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker; Pinker’s view of history is that progress, in terms of the reduction of violence and the expansion of health and happiness, is the result of progressives, not conservatives. At this point in the American narrative, therefore, we would be in a (temporary) period of regression, driven by a demagogue who taps into the fears that always reside in a portion of the population, amplified by changes in society that is increasingly multicultural.

Brooks notes,

Roughly two-thirds of Americans, across four political types, fall into what the authors call “the exhausted majority.” Sixty-one percent say people they agree with need to listen and compromise more. Eighty percent say political correctness is a problem, and 82 percent say the same about hate speech.
Unfortunately, people in the exhausted majority have no narrative. They have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action. When they get one I suspect it will look totally unlike the two dominant narratives today. These narratives are threat narratives. But the people who make positive change usually focus on gifts, not deficits. They tell stories about the assets we have and how we can use them together.

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