Graham Robb, The Discovery of France — July 23, 2016

Graham Robb, The Discovery of France

Cover of _Discovery of France_: brown background, title set in Art Deco-ish font. A map of France is overlaid on the silhouette of a man on a bicycle -- seemingly an old man, wearing a hat like gentlemen would have worn in the 1920s or so.

In lieu of a proper review: please go read this book. I read it a few weeks ago, and it’s been quietly haunting me ever since. At one level, it’s a book about the weirdness of France when you dig just below the surface. At another level, it’s about the weirdness lurking under the surface of the entire modern world. We live in a world that has been, in some sense, normalized and channeled in non-weird directions. Come to any place like Boston or Paris, and the weirdness is hidden from you; tourists are directed to completely normal tourist attractions, which present a rather bland and unsurprising face to the world. In the specific case of France, the face that we see is the face of Paris: even the vaunted “French cuisine” is really Parisian cuisine. Consider the provinces:

For tourists who ventured beyond Paris, the true taste of France was stale bread. The degree of staleness reflected the availability of fuel. A manual of rural architecture published in Toulouse in 1820 stated that the public oven should be large enough to allow the week’s bread to be baked in a single twenty-four-hour period. In the Alps, enough bread was produced in a single batch for a year and sometimes two or three years. It was baked, at least once, then hung above a smoky fire or dried in the sun. Sometimes, the ‘loaf’ was just a thin barley and bean-flour biscuit. To make it edible and to improve the colour, it was softened in buttermilk or whey. Rich people used white wine.

As I copy down that passage, the final sentence reminds me of something else I love about this book: the economy of a dry observation. A lesser writer could have elaborated that “Even the wealthy ate no better than this; rich people used white wine.” Robb lets the observation stand on its own, and moves on.

What initially drew me to this book (when my friend Chris directed me) was an absolutely insane passage about babies being carted off to Paris from the provinces, stuffed into bicycle panniers. It’s not just that the pre-industrial era is not far behind us; and it’s not just that the provinces were backwards until quite recently; it’s that our entire way of looking at the world has been canalized into a particularly boring 21st-century mode, and that the world is a phenomenally strange place.

There are many other levels to this book. The only other one I’ll point out is the mutual incomprehensibility in which even adjoining villages often lived. The “French language” is a construct, enforced by the Académie Française, hammered out of the thousands of dialects that filled the countryside. Again, the picture that we moderns — maybe especially Americans — have of the world around us is a world of nations with well-defined borders, governed by strong central governments, speaking basically one (or at most a few) language, with the language and the government spanning roughly the same territory. Graham Robb’s book puts us back in a world where the governments, the languages, and the cultures are all fluid and unnamed.

I recommend it without reservation. And I want to read more books like this one, which give us the historical imagination to return to a just-barely-buried world.

Candidates for the language graveyard — July 5, 2016
PSA on the Provincetown fast ferry — July 4, 2016

PSA on the Provincetown fast ferry

If you want to take an Uber to the Bay State Cruise Company ferry from Boston to Provincetown, don’t tell the Uber driver to go to 200 Seaport Boulevard. That’s a very large building, and you’ll end up blocks (as well as some vertical feet) away from where you want to be. Where you really want to be is at the corner of Seaport Blvd. and B Street. If I invent a location called “165 Northern Ave.,” that seems to be where you want to be.

You don’t have to deserve it — June 29, 2016

You don’t have to deserve it

A World to Make: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Sanders Generation has really stuck with me over the past few months; it reappears in my head with some regularity, especially this thesis:

  1. Not Everything Has to Be Earned
    Bill Clinton often said that he wanted a fair return for people who “work hard and play by the rules.” And of course working hard and honoring the rules (at least where the rules are fair and legitimate) deserves respect. But the national fixation on people getting what they “deserve,” from meritocratic rewards in higher education to incarceration (“Do the crime, do the time,” the prosecutors say) has gotten out of hand. It locks us into a mutual suspicion of people getting away with something—pocketing some perk or job or government benefit that they didn’t “really earn”—while ignoring the way the whole economy tilts its rewards toward those who already have wealth. A left program should shift the attention from zero-sum questions about who gets what, and at whose expense, to bigger questions about what everyone should get just for being part of the social order: education (including good higher education), health care, safety in their neighborhood, an infrastructure that works.

I get that there’s a mismatch between what’s ethically correct — which I think the above thesis is — and what’s politically possible. Matt Yglesias makes the reasonable point in a recent episode of The Weeds that it really is much easier to sell welfare of the “pay people only if they work [i.e., ‘deserve it’]” variety, rather than the “give poor people cash” variety. There’s a broader question there of how we developed a public morality such that these are the terms of the debate, but I get the practicalities.

In a lot of ways the Democratic primary of 2016 has felt like an argument between those two poles: what small incremental improvements can we make to the welfare state (Clinton), versus how do we change the way we even discuss the topic such that fundamental improvement is possible (Sanders). We need both.

Why this is not quoted anywhere on the Internet, I have no idea — June 28, 2016

Why this is not quoted anywhere on the Internet, I have no idea

I tried any number of reasonable Google searches to get this text, then finally gave up and found it in my paper copy of Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect. Lane is reading each of the top 10 New York Times bestsellers from the week of May 15, 1994. Hence I give you:

No. 5 on the list is Inca Gold, by Clive Cussler. The plot is some farrago about buried treasure in the Andes, and the characters, though intended to be as tough as old boots, are not quite tough enough to curse properly. “Those fornicating baboons” is about as close as they get. The fruitful comparison here is with Judith Krantz, who I thought would be partial to soft-core euphemisms like “manhood” and “moistness” but never hesitates to call a fuck a fuck. The only point of interest in Inca Gold, in fact, is Cussler’s attempt to out-Folsom Alan Folsom, sometimes in the most unsuitable places: “the underwater blast came like the eruption of a huge depth charge as a seething column of white froth and green slime burst out of the sinkhole, splattering everyone and everything standing within 20 meters (66 feet) of the edge.” I love that parenthesis more than I can say. Someone should ask Mr. Cussler to edit an anthology of English verse. He could start with Robert Frost:

And miles (multiples of 1.6 kilometres)
to go before I sleep.
And miles (multiples of 1.6 kilometres)
to go before I sleep.

(British spelling of ‘kilometers’ is [sic], by the way, because The New Yorker. These are the same people who spell it ‘focussed’.)

It’s odd — June 21, 2016
Happiest day of my life — June 6, 2016

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.