Friday, May 23, 2014

Great Brooks of the Western World

Hedgehog, via NPR.
David Brooks writes:
People constantly ask me what my favorite books are, and while I think it would be self-indulgent for me to devote a column to that I'm going to write two columns instead, covering four books this week and four next, because after all summer is practically here, and the new interns haven't shown up yet.
"A Collection of Essays" by George Orwell. I learned everything I know about good writing from Orwell, along with C.S. Lewis, who is practically the same in the sense that both use strong and simple language, and it's from [jump]
him that I get my knack for an opening sentence that will knock your socks off like, "People are always asking me what my favorite books are."
Thus his essay "England Your England", written during the Blitz, begins, "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."
One of the great things about "A Collection of Essays" is that it slices marvels like this out of their original context, like "England Your England" being the first chapter of "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius", and you can enjoy that wonderful sentence without being forced to realize that Orwell will go on to say, "What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit–DOES NOT WORK. It cannot deliver the goods. This fact had been known to millions of people for years past, but nothing ever came of it, because there was no real urge from below to alter the system, and those at the top had trained themselves to be impenetrably stupid on just this point. Argument and propaganda got one nowhere. The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed that all was for the best." And so on.
Indeed that first sentence is so great you can just stop right there, and then note how Orwell proved that writers ought not to think of themselves as activists championing some movement, which would be the path to mental stagnation.
From Hedgehogs With Hats.
"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy. Speaking of famous first sentences, I won't even mention the one about happy families being all the same. While "War and Peace" starts out in French, of all things, "Anna Karenina" begins in good, strong, simple English, and is about unhappy families and adultery, showing how people are driven by passions they cannot control, which goes along well with my theories about how poor people need to control themselves better.
Mentioning it, moreover, allows me to remind readers indirectly that I got at least to page 2 of Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" and its comparison between hedgehog Dostoevsky and fox Tolstoy, or at least some newspaper column about Berlin's essay, by referring to "Anna Karenina" as a "fox-like love story", which is in turn a great example of how simple words can obfuscate and mystify just as well as fancy ones, because what the fuck is a fox-like love story? Though I may have mentioned the fox-hedgehog thing before, come to think of it.
"Rationalism in Politics" by Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott writes that political problems cannot be solved by rational planning because technical knowledge versus practical knowledge. I believe I may have mentioned this before too. The point of the present column is to assert that Oakeshott is the literary equal of Orwell and Tolstoy without actually saying anything that stupid, a pretty neat trick if I say so myself.
"All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren. How many famous and respected novels of American politics do you know where the conniving, corrupt, racist politicians are all Democrats?
Dwarf hedgehog via I Love Baby Animals.

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