Tidbits

Wilson was a great man but he had one basic fault. He was willing to do anything for people except get off their backs and let them live their own lives. He would never let go until they forced him to and then it was too late. He never seemed to understand there’s a big difference between trying to save people and trying to help them. With luck you can help ’em—but they always save themselves.

— Raymond Robins, quoted in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams

Thus these youth found employment for their idle powers in a fondness for despair. To scoff at glory, at religion, at love, at all the world, is a great consolation for those who do not know what to do; they mock at themselves, and in doing so prove the correctness of their view. And then it is pleasant to believe one’s self unhappy when one is only idle and tired.

Confessions of a Child of the Century by Alfred de Musset

Whew! Have I got grievances! Do I harbor hatreds I didn’t even know were there! Is it the process, Doctor, or is it what we call “the material”? All I do is complain, the repugnance seems bottomless, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe enough isn’t enough. I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public. Could I really have detested this childhood and resented these poor parents of mine to the same degree then as I seem to now, looking backward upon what I was from the vantage point of what I am—and am not? Is this truth I’m delivering up, or is it just plain kvetching? Or is kvetching for people like me a form of truth?”

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

(in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or, rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Nothing of this can be seen by one who moves on his feet or his wheels over the city pavements. And, inversely, from up here you have the impression that the true crust of the earth is this, uneven but compact, even if furrowed by gaps whose depth cannot be known, chasms or pits or craters whose edges seem in perspective to overlap like the scales of a pine cone, and it never even occurs to you to wonder what is hidden in their depth, because the panorama of the surface is already so vast and rich and various that it more than suffices to saturate the mind with information and meanings.

This is how birds think, or at least this is how Mr. Palomar thinks, imagining himself a bird. “It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes, “that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.”

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Mr. Palomar’s spirit vacillates between contrasting urges: the one that aims at complete, exhaustive knowledge and could be satisfied only by tasting all the varieties; and the one that tends toward an absolute choice, the identification of the cheese that is his alone, a cheese that certainly exists even if he cannot recognize it (cannot recognize himself in it).

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Yet he knows he could never suppress in himself the need to translate, to move from one language to another, from concrete figures to abstract words, to weave and reweave a network of analogies. Not to interpret is impossible, as refraining from thinking is impossible.

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

But how can you look at something and set your own ego aside? Whose eyes are doing the looking? As a rule, you think of the ego as one who is peering out of your own eyes as if leaning on a window sill, looking at the world stretching out before him in all its immensity. So, then: a window looks out on the world. The world is out there; and in here, what do we have? The world still—what else could there be? With a little effort of concentration, Mr. Palomar manages to shift the world from in front of him and set it on the sill, looking out. Now, beyond the window, what do we have? The world is also there, and for the occasion has been split into a looking world and a world looked at. And what about him, also known as “I,” namely Mr. Palomar? Is he not a piece of the world that is looking at another piece of the world? Or else, given that there is world that side of the window and world this side, perhaps the “I,” the ego, is simply the window through which the world looks at the world.

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

He felt an overwhelming sense of camaraderie when, watching the football playoffs, in January, he saw the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman deliver his now infamous victory rant to Fox’s Erin Andrews. (“When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get!” Sherman shouted. “Don’t you ever talk about me.”) “What you saw in Richard Sherman was the truth of athletes at the highest, highest, highest level,” Bryant said, and brought up, as a similar example, the speech Michael Jordan gave at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in 2009: a sad, drawn-out spectacle of score-settling, name-calling, and false humility. “It made everybody uncomfortable, but that’s him, right?” Bryant said of Jordan. “So when you see Sherman kind of just let it out, that’s been inside him from Day One. This is why he’s the best at what he does, because that’s how he feels. Now, when other people see that, it scares the shit out of ’em, right? But for people that understand that—like, I see him, I’m all, ‘Yeah, oh I think that every day.’ ”

The Fourth Quarter by Ben McGrath

Human beings are odd assets: they acquire the value the moment somebody believes in them. In this they are totally unreal, in the sense of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as that which does not go away when you stop believing in it.

The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial by Venkatesh Rao

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

— Gustave Flaubert

Monti told me that, when he was Prime Minister and visited Barack Obama at the White House, Obama admitted to being at a loss to know “how to engage Merkel on matters of economic policy.” Obama asked his advice, and Monti replied, “For Germans, economics is still part of moral philosophy, so don’t even try to suggest that the way to help Europe grow is through public spending. In Germany, growth is the reward for virtuous economics, and the word for ‘guilt’ and ‘debt’ is the same.”

The Demolition Man by Jane Kramer

Work went better this year than any year before … My authority has grown among the workers … My son is doing well, and he’s been recommended for graduate school without even having to take the test. After two years, he’ll get a job with no problems. My photography skills have reached a new level, and I will try to keep learning forever. Womanizing is on the right track. Hooked up with Little Ms. Pan. Regularly having a good time with Ms. Tan Shanfang, and I enjoy my time with Ms. Mo Yaodai. It’s been a fine year, woman-wise, but with so many partners I need to keep an eye on my health.

— Excerpt from the diary of Han Feng, chief of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau in Laibin, taken from Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

The last case I saw before I gave up bothering to keep track of such reports was about the police chief in the county of Usu. When he was found to be in a pair of simultaneous love affairs with women whom he had promoted through the ranks of the police force–while keeping them in a luxurious apartment funded by taxpayers–his office released a clarification that must have felt like good news under the circumstances: the police chief’s two mistresses were not twin sisters, they were just sisters. When I read this detail, I stopped chewing my lunch and looked up, blinking, while I absorbed the full scale of it; the “just sisters” defense seemed to set a new watermark for the image of Chinese public servants

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

The next morning, Michael boarded a homebound train. It would take thirteen hours to reach Qingyuan. He hoped to graduate someday to the high-speed trains running from the flying-saucer-shaped station, but that day hadn’t yet arrived. For now, he bore the weight of the past that had defined him and the future he wanted so desperately to create. He was divided between the old-world expectation to accommodate and the modern pressure to stand on his own. As always, he wrote about it in a passage for his students to recite, and it sounded, to my ear, like a mantra, a Hail Mary, an incantation. But it was a prayer only to themselves: “I will completely accept everything I was born with,” they said, “and I will do my best to change it.”

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

To welcome the gathering, outgoing president Hu Jintao delivered his final public speech. He titled it, “Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in all Respects.” The most memorable line was pithier: “We will never copy a Western political system,” he said. The state news service reported on a delegate who was so moved by the speech that she “wept five times”; another said her hands went numb from thirty-five rounds of applause.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Economists point to a historic correlation between “world’s tallest” debuts and economic slowdowns. There is no cause and effect, but such projects are a sign of easy credit, excessive optimism, and inflated land prices–a pattern that dates to the world’s first skyscraper, the Equitable Life Building. Built in 1873, the start of a five-year slump that became known as the Long Depression, and the pattern repeated in decades to follow. Skyscraper magazine, a Shanghai publication that treated tall buildings like celebrities, reported in 2012 that China would finish a new skyscraper every five days for the next three years; China was home to 40 percent of the skyscrapers under construction in the world.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Elimination, by the way, does not absolutely require an intestine or anus, for some creatures don’t live long enough to have an elimination problem (death or pupation doing the eliminating) while others merely slough off waste from their outer surfaces like bark from a tree. The anus too is apt to have a different and less unsavory connotation to animals than to people. When the sea cucumber, who had been evacuating his indigestibles out of his mouth for a hundred million years, finally evolved a separate anus for the purpose, thereby gaining a choice as to which opening to breathe through, he chose the anus! And of course this choice may have been influenced by the parasitic little pearlfish who traditionally inhabits his rectum, using his anus for a door, and who undoubtedly feels, like so many of us, that “there’s no place like home.”

The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration of Science and Philosophy by Guy Murchie

‘In religion,’ Napoleon told Roederer, one of the few state councillors allowed into the secret of the negotiations, ‘I do not see the mystery of the Incarnation, but the mystery of the social order. It associates with Heaven an idea of equality that keeps rich men from being massacred by the poor . . . Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion.’ He had already shown in Egypt how flexible he was in using religion for political ends; as he once remarked to Roederer: ‘If I ruled a people of Jews, I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon!’“ This essentially pragmatic view of religion was common among Enlightenment thinkers and writers. Edward Gibbon famously wrote in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that ‘The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.’

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

I’m in the middle right now. Young company, young kids, unfinished book, 40s, sore back, facing bariatric uncertainties and paying down the mortgage. 20 years is arbitrary nonsense. A blip. Our software is bullshit, our literary essays are too long, the good editors all quit or got fired, hardly anyone is experimenting with form in a way that wakes me up, the IDEs haven’t caught up with the 1970s, the R&D budgets are weak, the little zines are badly edited, the tweets are poor, the short stories make no sense, people still care too much about magazines, the Facebook posts are nightmares, LinkedIn has ruined capitalism, and the big tech companies that have arisen are exhausting, lumbering gold-thirsty kraken that swim around with sour looks on their face wondering why we won’t just give them all our gold and save the time. With every flap of their terrible fins they squash another good idea in the interest of consolidating pablum into a single database, the better to jam it down our mental baby duck feeding tubes in order to make even more of the cognitive paté that Silicon Valley is at pains to proclaim a delicacy. Social media is veal calves being served tasty veal. In the spirit of this thing I won’t be editing this paragraph.

@20 by Paul Ford

It is estimated that the number of books that had been produced cumulatively in the history of the world before 1450 was equaled by the number produced between 1450 and 1500; that this number was produced again between 1500 and 1510; and that twice this number was produced in the next decade.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Thrashing in sleep or fever, clutching at the very air as if to pull it to him. And always there bedside she was, his, in thrall, bewitched, wiping and swabbing and stroking and tending, never a word of acknowledgment of the sheer horror of what he produced and expected her to wipe away. The endless thankless expectation. Never acknowledged. The girl I married would have reacted very, very differently to this creature, believe me. Treating her breasts as if they were his. Property. Her nipples the color of a skinned knee. Grasping, clutching. Making greedy sounds. Manhandling her. Snorting, wheezing. Absorbed wholly in his own sensations. Reflectionless. At home in his body as only one whose body is not his job can be at home. Filled with himself, right to the edges like a swollen pond. He was his body. I often could not look.

On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace