Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.

The Feeble and Completely Pointless Thought Experiment of Roger Simon

It is a well-documented fact that Twitter turns the finest minds of our planet into simpering and sophist children flicking inconsequential 280 character bagatelles into the digital ether and that these portentous pronouncements are often misconstrued as High Thought, if not The Truth, about The Way Things Are in Today’s World. And even though I accept the deplorable trolling and the gormless groupthink, and the fact that nobody seems to offer pushback or nuance or a charitable consideration of another viewpoint, nothing could quite prepare me this morning for the lethal combination of hubris and stupidity that I discovered in this tweet from Roger Simon:

Now Roger Simon is not some doddering dude yelling some crazy lager-fueled bullshit at the top of his lungs in a bar. He is the bestselling author of Show Time. He was a long-running columnist at Politico. He has a history of legitimately provoking thought, such as this subtly trenchant piece on how the right-wing media caused a repulsive furor after exposing private messages sent through Ezra Klein’s Journolist.

But here, Simon has clearly lost his marbles, capitulating to the worst “hot take” tendencies that desperate self-appointed pundits retreat to when they’re trying to file six thoughtless blog posts each day that get people outraged and thus tweeting about it in high histrionics. It stands against the kind of journalism that Simon purports to stand for.

I certainly want Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to live as long as possible. But what rankles me about this tweet is how it epitomizes everything that I detest about a certain strain of magical thinking that has increasingly come to replace reason: (a) the guilt-laden plea to donate one day of your life for the greater good (and thus the “better” person), which in and of itself implies that the 10,000 people sacrificed their day weren’t going to live a meaningful day in the first place, thus mitigating the selflessness, (b) the refusal to accept that something as grief-enabling as death is a process of life and thus an existential reality that we all have to accept, which causes us to become stronger and more empathetic to our fellow humans, and (c) the warped “solution” to the troubling Supreme Court situation, cemented by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh swinging the high court into a 5-4 tilt to the far right, involves Ginsberg hanging on for dear life and that this is the only apparent idea to preserve a politically balanced high court for the next few decades.

The trolley problem is a thought experiment. Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment. Hell, even The Man in the High Castle is a thought experiment. In all of these cases, the speculative proposition causes us to think about something tangible in our thoughts and our everyday lives. In the case of the trolley problem, we have to come to terms with the morality of whether killing one person to save multiple lives makes us complicit in the singular death. In the case of Plutarch, we are asked to consider whether constantly replacing the rotting parts of a ship ad infinitum means that the ship can indeed be the same as it was when it first started out. In the Amazon television series, we see how 20th century American life under a hypothetical Nazi victory reveals dark quotidian parallels to the world we live in today, causing us to reexamine whether our tacit acceptance of consumerism and comfort might share some qualities with the same vile impulses behind death camps and slaughtering the weak.

But Simon’s proposition has no such larger moral philosophy, much less any realist allegory, in mind. His proposition was so condescending and badly considered that it provoked anger and befuddlement from the left and right. And this sort of nonsense disheartens me. Once again, we have someone who should know better trafficking and even reveling in stupidity (just read his replies on his Twitter feed). And it serves to uphold my thesis that everyone on Twitter — even a seemingly distinguished veteran journalist — inevitably succumbs to the cloying attention-seeking asininity that is systematically tearing this nation apart and preventing us from finding real solutions to very serious problems.

Scoop (Modern Library #75)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.

Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.

So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.

Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”

This is pitch-perfect Waugh. Sadly, the wanton laziness of journalists and willful opportunism of newspaper publishers remain very applicable eighty-one years after Scoop‘s publication. In 2015, a Hardin County newspaper misreported that the local sheriff had said that “those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.” And this was before The New York Times became an apologist outlet for Nazis (the original title of that linked article was “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door”) and didn’t even bother to fact-check an infamous climate change denial article from Bret Stephens published on April 28, 2017.

So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.

The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.

In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.

Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”

Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.

We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.

But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.

Next Up: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms!

You’re Not Very Interesting

So tell me about you. I mean, I’ve been talking a lot about myself.

I don’t mind. I like to listen.

Yes, but you’ve spent the last hour listening. And I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. What do you like to do?

I walk.

Yes.

Long distances. Quite a few Great Saunters under my belt.

What’s a Great Saunter?

You walk around the perimeter of Manhattan starting at 6 AM. 32 miles. I stopped doing it when I got food poisoning after eating a burrito in the Bronx. That was halfway through the last Saunter I did.

Mmmm. What else?

I cook and I bake. I invite people over for three-course dinners.

What do you make?

Everything. A professional food writer even gave me the thumbs up, which was a nice surprise. Or maybe she was being polite. Anyway, I always try something new. I once made sancocho from scratch. It took five hours. It made many people very happy. My dishes are often hits at potlucks.

What else do you do?

I volunteer.

Who do you volunteer with?

A few places. Meals on Wheels. Various organizations.

And you write and make audio drama?

Yes. It’s very fun. And it’s nice to have actors come by. They’re all very kind.

And you sing?

Yes. I have also written a few dozen songs since picking up the guitar again in August. People seem to like them. I’m going to start performing them.

You perform?

I act sometimes. I sometimes do all this under different names. Just to see if I’ve still got it.

Why?

Long story for another time. But I do most of what I do under my own name.

What else do you do?

I do a secret good deed every day.

Such as?

Well, it wouldn’t be a secret good deed if I told you. But kindnesses here and there. A gesture, a donation, a favor, a lengthy email of encouragement. Anything ranging from five minutes to three hours.

Why do you do that?

Because you have to give back. Or just plain give. It often isn’t enough.

Can I confess something?

Sure.

You don’t sound very interesting.

I once saved a magazine’s archives from permanent digital deletion. I have talked quite a few people out of suicide over the phone. I gave money to a woman to help her escape her abusive partner and now she’s thriving. I drove 400 miles to bail out a friend on short notice. Not too long ago, a homeless woman asked me for a cigarette on a cold night and she looked so lost and sad that I bought her a meal and a Metrocard. I said that she could use my shower, gave her a new toothbrush and a few T-shirts, had her sleep in my bed while I crashed on the couch.

That sounds dangerous.

Everything turned out fine. I give pep talks. For some reason, people open up to me.

You don’t have to be defensive.

You’re right. I’m working on that. Well, if I’m not interesting, why are you here?

I don’t know. There’s something about you that intrigues me.

But you just said that I’m not interesting.

You’re not. But you intrigue me.

Can you be intrigued by someone who you don’t find interesting?

Maybe.

Maybe you’re just passing the time. Can I tell you a story?

Sure.

So I was a little effusive on New Year’s.

Texting?

Yeah. I just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year. Because I was feeling good and really positive at a karaoke bar. They gave me the mic and I sang U2’s “New Year’s Day” just after midnight. And I accidentally texted someone I dated two years ago.

What happened?

Well, she opened up to me a bit about how we had connected. And I told her she was kind and peaceful.

Yeah?

Yeah. And we were being real with each other. And then she said something about a guy named Isaac. And I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. And that’s when she realized that it was another guy named Ed that she had dated around the same time.

What happened?

She invalidated the text chain that we had shared before and told me she wasn’t interested in texting further. So I peacefully obliged. But here’s the thing. If you share an experience with someone, and that person is not who you think they are, does that cancel out the experience? It was a harmless mistake. Could have happened to anyone. But it made me wonder if we’re all far more willing to fall into scripts and assumptions rather than actually connect and empathize with each other and understand that there’s another human being on the other side. That there’s a beauty in recognizing another person’s totality. I don’t think anyone wants to acknowledge the commonality of our fuckups. We would rather be the heroes of our own stories. And that’s not very interesting.

Maybe you’re just not very interesting.

Maybe you’re right.

The Year That Tried to Run Away

They chased the old year down to the edge of the earth. It wasn’t easy, but they cornered the suspect in a gas station just outside Sarasota, Florida, where the year gave up his hard grip on global chronology. The suspect, known to the authorities as “2018,” dropped the can of Pringles, the energy drink, the four packs of beef jerky, the soft box of Newport Longs from which he had fiendishly fired up a fresh one in open contravention of local law, and the twelve pack of MGD under his right arm. He hoped these provisions would give him a few more days of life after December 31st.

He longed to make it to January. Maybe February if he was lucky. He wanted to convince the human species to abandon their calendar system and maybe try out a fifteen month year for once. Maybe a few more evil acts would frighten them into accepting his tyrannical conditions.

He was dressed in tattered rags by the time they nabbed him. A couple returning home to Vermont from a happy holiday, their son filling up the family Prius on Pump 3 just outside, felt the burning jolt of the perp’s vicious scowl and instantly dropped dead of heart attacks. Plop plop. Tears from the kid. Grief that would scar for years. Work for the Brattleboro obituary writers.

A twelve-year-old girl buying a pack of gum was lucky enough to escape merely with a premature mane of white.

The suspect snapped his fingers. And the man in the restroom, already unsettled by the heavy brick attached to the key that he balanced on his knees, discovered that there was no toilet paper and that the faucets had stopped worked. The man’s anguished cry could be heard as far away as Long Boat Key.

“Come out with your hands up!” shouted the squad leader through this megaphone. “You’re surrounded! December, you got this guy?”

December, the most stoic of the twelve lieutenants, nodded and gave the hand signal to Units 29, 30, and 31 to lock their sniper rifles on the rogue year. The team had been doing this for more than two thousand years and they weren’t going to let any goddam year make it past January. Not on their watch.

The criminal had taken out so many promising people (Franklin, Bourdain, Lee, Le Guin, Ellison, Marshall, Shelley, Spade, Roth, Hawking, Lanzmann, Forman, Reynolds, Kidder, Simon, Roeg, Rain, Jay, Mack, Locke, Swift, Ditko, Crimmins, O’Riordan, Hutchison, Anderson, Kao, so many others) and his other acts had caused so much crippling anxiety and torment. But he was quite happy with his accomplishments. The Kavanaugh confirmation. The zero tolerance policy on DACA. He had even persuaded Kevin Spacey to lose his mind on Christmas Eve. He strived for evil excellence even in the final days and he was particularly proud of that last touch. But he wasn’t done with his work. No, sir. Not by a long shot. He knew that 536, believed to be the worst year in human history, was the year he had to top. He wanted to stand out, win awards, be recognized by the historians. So he made sure that the West Wing invited him over every day and he whispered terrible sentiments into the President’s ear and somehow everything the year said ended up on Twitter. It had all been remarkably easy.

But all years, good and bad, do have to retire. Which is why he was in Florida. Tax incentives. Shuffleboard. For all his malevolence, he did like shuffleboard. 2018 was a bona-fide dickhead, but you had to give him shuffleboard.

Couldn’t they see that he was an innovator? Well, some of them did. He had won great acclaim from the Republicans and the Nazis. 2016 had texted him days before. “Dude! You’re making ME look like one of the good ones.”

Couldn’t they see that he was just getting started with his misery? That there were still more lives to ruin?

But in the end, he gave himself up peacefully to the chronological police, allowing his wrists to be manacled. The chron cops snapped the tracking bracelet to his ankle. There were still a few days left before the new kid would take over.

“Nice work, December,” said the squad leader.

December grunted back and held up three fingers.

“How’s the training going with the kid?”

“Who?” asked a special day unit He munched on a donut. It was the twelfth one he had eaten that day. He felt an inexplicable need to eat at least eighteen more.

“Nineteen. I mean, he’s the one closing out this decade.”

“Oh, yeah,” said the day unit. “Well, I think he’s still watching the orientation video.”

“The sixteen hour one?”

“It’s a new one. HR updated it with the bubonic plague, Holodomor, the Trail of Tears, the Rwandan genocide, and there’s even a few minutes on the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. We’ve got to make sure that the new kid’s better than this guy.”

“Okay. Well, see to it that he’s ready at midnight! We can’t have any more screwups!”

“Yes, sir.”

“What about Eighteen? He’s not saying anything.”

“Let him stew. He’s finished.”

But the criminal smiled in the back of the police car. There was one thing he knew that they didn’t. For it was the custom of each year to draft a handwritten letter to the next year upon completing the 365 day term. And he had written words. Evil words. Seductive words. Words that would corrupt anyone. Words that no video could ever erase. He steepled his fingers, loosened a maniacal laugh into the fresh ocean air, and looked forward to settling into house arrest and observing what the new kid would do once he started his shift. He was feeling incredibly confident.

(A version of this story was sent privately to some friends, who loved it so much that they urged me to expand it. And so here we are. Happy New Year to everyone!)

The Face of Battle (Modern Library Nonfiction #81)

(This is the twentieth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Strange Death of Liberal England.)

Thy fanes, thy temples to the surface bow,
Commingling slowly with heroic earth,
Broke by the share of every rustic plough:
So perish monuments of mortal birth,
So perish all in turn, save well-recorded worth;

— Lord Byron, Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage

I must confess from the outset that the study of armed human conflict, with its near Spartan fixation on tactics and statistics, has long filled me with malaise. It is among the least sexiest subjects that a polymath of any type can devote her attentions to, akin to cracking open a thick, limb-crushing tax code volume written in a way that obliterates all joy and finding a deranged pleasure within this mind-numbingly dull amalgam of numbers and turgid prose. As Margaret Atwood once quipped in a poem, the military historian says, “I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.” And when the song remains the same, why would anyone other than a ketamine fiend dance to it?

I’ve long pictured the military historian as some aging jingoistic white male whose idea of a good time involves blasting John Philip Sousa from a set of speakers that should be devoted to happening hip-hop: a lonely and humorless parasite who moves cast-iron figures across a threadbare map in some dusty basement, possibly talking to himself in a gruff tone that uncannily mimics Rod Steiger’s inebriated cadences. He seems overly enamored of the dry details of ordnance, mirthless arrows, and terrain circles. Perhaps he fritters away his time in some homebuilt shack far off the main artery of Interstate 76, ready to reproduce well-studied holes with his Smith & Wesson should any nagging progressive come to take away his tattered Confederate flag or any other paleolithic memorabilia that rattles his martial disposition. But let’s say that such a man is committed to peace. Then you’re left with his soporific drone as he dodders on about some long dead general’s left flank attack in the most unpalatable ramble imaginable. He prioritizes a detached tabulative breakdown over the more palpable and poignant truths that motivates men. He doesn’t seem to care about how a soldier experiences trauma or summons bravery in impossible conditions, or how these battles permanently alter nations and lives. The military historian is, in Napoleonic short, a buzz killer despite his buzz cut. Indeed, military history is so embarrassing to read and advocate that, only a few weeks ago, I was forced to hide what I was reading when a woman started flirting with me at a bar. (I sheepishly avoided revealing the title to her for fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, she persisted. And upon seeing The Face of Battle, the woman in question rightfully headed for the hills, even after I offered to buy her a drink.)

There are quite a few military history books on the Modern Library list. So I’m more or less fucked. It is not that war itself does not interest me. Human beings have been fighting each other since the beginning of time and only a soulless anti-intellectual fool resolutely committed to the vulgar act of amusing himself to death would fail to feel anything pertaining to this flaw in the human makeup. The podcaster Dan Carlin, who specializes in military history, is one of the few people who I can listen to in this medium for many hours and remain completely enthralled. But that is only because Carlin is incredibly skilled at showing how the paradigm shifts of war influence our everyday lives. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was a remarkable film that hurled its audience into the dizzying depths of war, but this is merely a vicarious sensory experience. I can get behind Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (ML NF #75) because of that book’s cogent observations on how war influenced literary culture. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (ML NF #84) remains a journalistic masterpiece that I very much admire — in large part because of its razor-sharp commitment to human psychology, which in turn allows us to understand the miasmic madness of making tactical decisions (see that book’s incredible “Battle of Ap Bac” chapter). But I’d hesitate to categorize either of these two brilliant volumes within the exacting genre of unadulterated military history. I’ve always had the sense that there’s an underlying bellicosity, if not an outright advocacy of warfare, with books that are exclusively dolled up in camo.

So upon reading The Face of Battle, it was something of a relief to see that John Keegan was up front from the get-go about what military history fails to do, and why accounts of battles are so problematic. He begins the book saying that he has never seen or been in a battle. And this is a hell of a way to open up a book that professes to give us the lowdown on what war is all about. It is a genuinely humble statement from someone who has made a career out of being an expert. He openly points to military history’s major weakness: “the failure to demonstrate connection between thought and action.” “What of feeling?” I thought as I read this sentence. According to Keegan, historians need to keep their emotions on a leash. And the technical example he cites — the British Official History of the First World War — is an uninspiring passage indeed. So what is the historian to do? Quote from the letters of soldiers. But then Keegan writes, “The almost universal illiteracy, however, of the common soldier of any country before the nineteenth makes it a technique difficult to employ.” Ugh. Keegan!

From Ilya Berkovich’s Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old-Regime Europe:

Considering the social origins of most eighteenth-century soldiers, one might think that literate soldiers were uncommon. However, literacy among the lower classes in old-regime Europe was becoming less exceptional. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the labouring poor in Britain were literate. Between 1600 and 1790, the portion of French bridegrooms singing their parish records doubled to about half of the total male population. Interestingly, the corresponding figures in northern and eastern frontier regions, which provided most French recruits, were much higher, with some areas coming close to universal literacy. Literacy rates in the Holy Roman Empire fluctuated widely, yet it is telling that over 40 per cent of the day labourers in mid-century Coblenz were able to sign their names. In rural East Prussia, one of the poorest regions in Germany, comparable figures were reached in 1800, although this was still a fourfold increase compared to only half-a-century before….

And so on. Fascinating possibilities for scholarship! It seems to me that someone here did not want to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.

You see the problems I was having with this book. On one hand, Keegan wants to rail against the limitations of military history (and he should! you go, girl!). On the other hand, he upholds the very rigid ideas that stand against the execution of military history in a satisfying, fact-based, and reasonably emotional way that allows voluble chowderheads like me an entry point.

But that’s not the main focus of this book. Keegan settles upon three separate events — the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and the first day of battle on the Somme (July 1, 1916) — to seek comparisons, commonalities, and various parallels that we might use to understand military mechanics. He is duly reportorial in each instance, but overly fond of taxonomy rather than tangibility. Still, there are moments when Keegan’s bureaucratic obsessiveness are actually interesting — such as his examination of British archers and infantry running up against French cavalry during Agincourt. After all, if a horse is charging its way into a man, either the horse is going to run away, men are going to be knocked down, or there’s going to be a “ripple effect” causing open pockets on each side of the horse. So it’s actually quite extraordinary to consider how the French got their asses kicked with such a clear advantage. Well, the British did this with stakes, which impaled the horses. And the threat of this obstacle caused the French to retreat with their backs to the British, resulting in archers lobbing arrows into their vertebrae.

Keegan informs us that “the force of unavoidable circumstances” sealed the fate of the French and allowed Henry V to win at Agincourt. When Keegan gets to Waterloo, we see a similar approach adopted by Napoleon near the end. Large crowds of French infantry rushed towards the British line, landing within mere yards. The two armies exchanged fire and the French, at a loss of what to do, turned around and fled. This was not an altogether smart strategy, given the depleting reserves that Napoleon had at his disposal. But it does eloquently demonstrate that battles tend to crumble once one side has entered an unavoidable choice. The rush of men on both sides at the Somme in 1916, of course, in the trenches not only escalated this to an unprecedented scale of atrocity, but essentially laid down the flagstones for the 20th century’s practice of mutually assured destruction.

These are vital ideas to understand. Still, I’m not going to lie. Keegan was, in many ways, dull and soporific — even for a patient reader like me. I learned more about Henry V’s campaign by reading Juliet Barker’s excellent volume Agincourt, which not only unpacked the incredible logistics of invading northwestern France with engrossing aplomb but also juxtaposed this campaign against history and many vital realities about 15th century life. And a deep dive into various World War I volumes (I especially recommend Richard Aldington’s surprisingly ribald novel, Death of a Hero) unveiled a lot of unanticipated sonic transcriptions that inspired me to draft an audio drama script that I hope to produce in a few years. Keegan is certainly helpful in a dry intellectual manner — the equivalent of being served a dull dish of desiccated biscuits when you haven’t eaten anything for days; I mean, there’s a certain point in which you’ll gorge on anything — but he’s not the man who inspired me about battle. Hell, when one of the most boring and pretentious New Yorker contributors of all time espouses Keegan’s “matchlessly vivid pen,” you know there’s a reason to hide beneath your blanket. Keegan is undoubtedly on this list because nobody before him had quite unpacked war from the bottom-up approach rather than the general’s top-down viewpoint. But like most military historians, he didn’t have enough of a heart for my tastes. There’s a way to present a detailed fact-driven truth without being such a detached fussbucket about it. And we shall explore and exuberantly praise such virtuosic historians in future Modern Library installments!

Next Up: Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology!