28 July, 2009
by Francis Wheen
Rather an annoying book, at times, this. Not, i fear, in the way that Wheen probably intended for it to be annoying to certain people (those at whom he is poking fun), but annoying in the way that he has written it. The design is to explore how people turn off their minds and fall for all sorts of evident nonsense for assorted reasons, especially because it makes them feel good or meets some ulterior motive.
There are several problems with the book; one is that i don’t think Wheen is quite certain of what he wants to do ~ or, rather, he is certain of his ultimate goal, but not so sure of the means he ought to use to attain that goal. He would like to destroy the foolishness of other people’s minds and obsessions; he is not sure whether ’tis best done through humour or argument, and thus he uses both, and neither to its full effect. Jeremy Paxman has made his choice: On the cover his one word review is quoted, “Hilarious”; evidently he has been able to overlook the parts of the book which are not hilarity-provoking, which do not even approach the humorous, and focus on what amused him. I cannot. Interestingly, neither did the writer of the back cover blurb, who calls it both “hilarious and [a] gloriously impassioned polemic”.
Another problem i have is that Wheen is not, in the passionately polemical sections, an especially good arguer. One simple example suffices: Wheen gives a quote often attributed to Chesterton which he then argues against. First, though something like the quote as he gives it is universally attributed to GKC (though no one seems to know from where), Wheen uses a form somewhat different from that usually given ~ “When a man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything” as opposed to something like “The danger when a man ceases to believe in God is not that he will believe nothing, but that he may believe anything” ~ now while with an untraceable quote one may be free to use any form, the fact that the one Wheen selects is different from and has a slightly different meaning to the usual form is significant. More significant is that he then equates anything and nothing which, even in the form he has quoted, clearly are not the same thing. He then suggests that the aphorism would be better phrased as, “If you believe in God, you’ll believe anything” which is stupid on so many levels that i find it hard even to start to criticise it.
A third problem i found is that, despite my frustration with both Wheen’s style(s) and argumentative capacity, i agree strongly with what he wants to say. At the time, for example, i found the whole Princess Diana fiasco an embarrassing (even for a Briton in America) reflection on mindless emotionalism; much of the chapter entitled “Us and Them” which ponders the younger President Bush’s world-view as an example of much of America’s, is highly relevant to the way the nations and peoples of the world views themselves and each other. That is frustrating, a problem for me, because i agree with Wheen, and find myself asking why he couldn’t have done better on such important and interesting issues.
12 July, 2009
David A. Wolff
A fascinating book about a minor character of American history. I suppose that he is of interest to most people because there is a character based on him in Deadwood, a television series of a few years ago; i dare say that is even the stimulous behind Wolff's writing of the book ~ that, and correcting the errors of the series' portrayal. Since i, however, had never heard of the programme, certainly never seen it, this book was my first (and only) introduction to Seth Bullock, and for that purpose it serves admirably.
Wolff has evidently done an immense amount of research; the notes are thirty pages of the two hundred page book, and the bibliography is another eight, and i have no fault to find with his scholarship. In fact, i'm not certain, at this point, that i find fault at all with the book, save perhaps, that the latter years of Bullock's life seem rather skimmed over, when compared with the detail given on the earlier, pre-Roosevelt shall we say, ones. This might be a reflection of the sources available, i suppose, though i suspect that if more was to be found on the man's earlier, less public life, that would be quite unusual in historiography. I would rather guess that it is the influence, perhaps without Wolff realising it, of the programme mentioned above, which i imagine focusses more on the Wild West aspects of the town of Deadwood and its leading citizens. Still, this is a minor complaint in a good book, and one i really didn't intend to focus upon.
The main point, as far as i am concerned, is that i have read a fascinating book about a man i never knew existed, about a time of history i really didn't (and don't) know very well, other than the basic “cowboys and indians” ideas that one obtains by osmosis from childhood, and now i have a slightly better feeling for the people of the Wild West. Not all of them came are portrayed by Wolff as real people, but there is enough life in the biography for the reader to grasp a flavour of it, and to be reminded that, yes they were actual people, the miners, the cowboys, the sheriffs, the hardware store owners, and all the rest, not just myths or characters on television and the silver screen. And that realisation of the reality of history is, in my opinion, sufficient justification for any history book to be called a success.