Category Archives: What I’m Reading Now

What book(s) I’m reading now and what I think about the subject, the writing, the book design and the author. Most of these are books by the bedside: books I read in the final hour or so before sleep each night. There is usually a stack of 10-20 books on the go at any one time.

How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada


“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli


The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Jack Finney’s Time and Again


Invasion of the Body SnatchersEver read Jack Finney? I knew the name, but I never read any of his books. I knew he was the author of the 1955 pulp novel, The Body Snatchers.  This became the basis for the 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is one of my all-time favourite B-films, one I can watch almost endlessly. I like it even more than the 1978 re-make. I have both (of course), and even have have the subsequent – and less impressive – remakes: Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). Plus a few of the below-B spinoffs like Invasion of the Pod People.

But I never got around to reading Finney’s original. Not sure why, since I’ve read in the past and still read a lot of the pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 1930s-60s.

A couple of years ago, I came across an unabridged audiobook of Finney’s Body Snatchers on sale at a nearby Chapters store. I often listen to audiobooks when I travel outside town and thought this would be amusing. Instead, I was impressed by how good it was, how well written. Well above the usual pulp standards. This was the work of an accomplished, talented writer.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked the audiobook better than the movie. A lot more. That’s some accomplishment. Sure, I usually prefer like books to their movies, but seldom do pulps scale the heights above their B-flicks this way.

I liked it so much, I played it for Susan – who doesn’t like the movies or the scary genres – and she agreed: it is very well written. Not scary as much as dramatic. Finney has a remarkable eye for detail.

Yesterday, on my trip to the city, I started to listen to it for a third time. It struck me again as such a well-crafted novel I decided to stop at the Chapters on the way home and see if they had a copy so I could read it. Of course, they didn’t (Chapters, I think, has gone steadily downhill as a bookstore since they decided to add geegaws and lifestyle tchotchkes to their stock at the expense of space for books…). But that store had another of his novels: Time and Again (1970). Which I bought.

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Human Smoke


Human Smoke“The truth of history,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs while exiled on St. Helena, “is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon mostly by the victors, one should add. The losers seldom agree with it.

In 1865, Mark Twain added in his work, Following the Equator: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Two centuries after Napoleon, Dana Arnold wrote in Reading Architectural History:

Historical reality is then a ‘referential illusion’, in which we try to grasp the reality… In this way history becomes a Myth or an ideology as it purports to be reality. Indeed, storytelling is often seen as one of the most important functions of writing histories and fundamental to the nature of the discipline.

When I was growing up, like so many millions of other post-war children, I was taught the history – the accepted, official history that was indelibly stamped on every page of our textbooks, and woven into our national identity – of World War II. The absolutely defined, cut-and-dried good=us vs. evil=them. Our bravery, their cowardice. Our sacrifices, their terror. Our victory, their loss. History was like a game of cowboys-and-Indians: two sides, one struggle, one outcome.

As a child of two veterans – whose own fathers had been veterans in the previous war-to-end-all-wars – and nephew of other veterans, I was inoculated with the “right” history that coloured our own family sense of honour, pride, loyalty and duty. Our bloodline fought the good fight and we were damned proud of it.

It was only decades later, when I started playing wargames and writing for a military history magazine that I started to read wider and deeper into the history of the century before I was born. And in doing so, learned that there were many more facets to the story than I had ever been led to believe. It proved both fascinating and unsettling. There’s more we’re not taught  than what we are taught. Continue reading

Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?


Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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Poor King Henry VII


Henry VIIAs Rodney Dangerfield might have said had he been cast in a role as Henry VII, “I don’t get no respect.”

Henry VII is one of those English kings who never seem to get any attention, outside the rarefied realms of academia. Only of late, it seems, have a few writers and TV producers turned their heads towards him – no doubt because a lot of the other, more exciting monarchs have been thoroughly covered on screen and in print.

Although he was the first of the short Tudor dynasty, his reign is overshadowed by those of his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. His continental contemporaries – Louis XI of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon – also outshone him.

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard wrote plays about Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. Just skipped VII as if the old geezer hadn’t been worth the price of a goose quill and paper. Plus he wrote about Kings John, Richard II and II and possibly Edward III. H7 is ignored.

Well, okay not completely. Just as far as top billing goes. He’s called the Earl of Richmond in Henry VI, part 3, a youngster who shows up towards the end – Act IV, Sc IV, a bit player without even a speaking part. Not very auspicious for the man who would be king not many years later.

Later, in Richard III, set in the finals years of the War of the Roses,  a somewhat older (28) Henry defeats the king (Richard III) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Again, Henry doesn’t show up until the end: Act V, Sc II – and his character is dull and stiff, compared to the vibrant and dynamic – albeit evil – Richard. He takes the crown to become King Henry VII, although the coronation itself is not shown (Derby removed it from the dead Richard). Yorkists win, Lancastrians lose. Sic friat crustulum.

(Apparently the 2016 sequel to the BBC’s superb Hollow Crown series will include Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, so you can watch them on DVD…)

Henry VII had long been dead by the time Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, and so he gets short shrift there, too. Queen Katharine mentions him in passing in Act II :

The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch’d wit and judgment…

Henry VIII also mentions him in passing in Act III. Neither call him by his name or title, just “father.”

Otherwise, H7 was just bypassed by the Bard and other playwrights.

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Poems That Make You Cry


Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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