After being basically locked indoors for over a month, it is very easy to feel sorry for oneself. Elon Musk is getting lambasted on Twitter for his declarations of independence, but even so I think most people can understand where he’s coming from. Because of the coronavirus, many of us have lost our main source of income, and even those that haven’t feel trapped in and desirous of resuming normal social life. Before the quarantine, it was easy to get “stuck in one’s own little bubble.” Now, it is impossible to get out of it.
This makes Chris Arnade’s book “Dignity” all the more important at the present moment. I purchased “Dignity” on Amazon a few months ago after reading a score of glowing reviews from people whose opinions I value. When the book arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit nonplussed: It did not look at all like I expected. The book is big and square, shaped more or less like a coffee table book. This was surprising, since the book is described as Arnade’s attempt to chronicle the lives of what he calls “the back row” of America. Who wants to leave out photographs of America’s most destitute to help entertain visitors? Disappointed, I placed “Dignity” on my bookshelf, thinking the purchase had been a mistake.
During quarantine, I, like many others, have not been wanting for time. I have done more reading in the past two months than I’ve done in years, and before long I found that I had run out of material. I considered turning to Amazon to find something new, but I was hesitant about putting any more strain on a logistical system also designed to deliver essentials. Instead, I went to my bookshelf. There I found, of course, “Dignity.” I decided to read it.
Like any coffee table book, “Dignity” includes photographs. Unlike any coffee table book I have ever seen, the pictures can by no means be described as beautiful or aesthetic or any adjective indicating that they are pleasant to look at. What they are is “real.” Following the tradition of reformers like Jacob Riis, Arnade sheds a light on America’s forgotten people. They include drug dealers, prostitutes, preachers and McDonald’s workers. They come from different parts of the country and vote in different ways. But they are all American.
As the subtitle of “Dignity” puts it, these are all people “seeking respect in America.” Arnade doesn’t just show their pictures; he also tells their stories. This kind of story is hard to find these days. Sure, you may see a prestige television take on HBO or Netflix, but such depictions are dramatized and exaggerated. To the contrary, Arnade’s descriptions feel lived-in. No embellishments necessary.
If you find yourself looking for something to do as the quarantine goes on, consider picking up this book. While you are stuck at home, it is a way for you to stay connected with the rest of the country; and not just those you are friends with on the internet.
“The Age of Addiction” Review: Blame The Capitalists For Your Bad Behavior
According to David T. Courtwright, author of the new book “The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business,” capitalism is to blame for the human proclivity for addiction. Specifically, he blames what he terms “limbic capitalism,” which “refers to a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries encourage excessive consumption and addiction.”
“The Age of Addiction” lays out the case, and Courtwright provides his readers with a sweeping, compelling and eminently readable work, detailing the history of vice all the way back to the invention of agriculture. Courtwright gives example after example throughout history of businesses taking advantage of the human condition called “hormesis,” wherein substances or inputs that are helpful for survival in small doses end up doing great harm when taken in larger ones. Advertisers have been taking this into account for a long time, skirting around our brain’s rational functioning and taking direct aim for our baser selves (i.e., our limbic system).
Courtwright’s history is fascinating, as he tells a story of the rise (and sometimes fall) of various vices, from ancient viticulture and poppy abuse, through mass production of cigarettes after World War II, all the way to slot machines and, of course, online pornography. Don’t pick up this book looking for a solution, which the author does not even attempt to provide. This is actually admirable, and more of this type of problem-identifying book would be better off sans the half-baked proposal inevitably tacked on after the last chapter of research and analysis.
At the end of “The Age of Addiction,” Courtwright addresses the two critiques he most often received when sending out his manuscript. One is his lack of an cure-all, while the other is his inability to ever nail down a definition of what he actually means by “addiction.” He does a good enough job tackling this criticism, pointing to an earlier chapter he devotes to the scientific disagreements over whether it is possible to be “addicted to food.”
Regardless of where one stands in that debate, it is easy to see the similarities between overindulging on sweets, alcohol and tobacco and the modern scourge of society, those digital addictions that monopolize our time. That said, Courtwright comes dangerously close to making some false equivalencies. Sugar may be bad for us, but can one really “equate confectioners with drug and alcohol traffickers,” as he attempts to? More to the point, the author spends an entire section explaining how Walt Disney World is functionally the same as Las Vegas or any other den of sin.
The derision of Walt Disney raises another problem with “The Age of Addiction,” since discussion of the man’s motives begins with this segue: “Disney devoted the 1950s and early 1960s to conquering a new entertainment medium, television, and a seedy old one, the amusement park.” Savor it, because that sentence is one of only eight times the word “television” appears in the book.
Six of the other seven times television is mentioned, it is merely regarding the fact that its existence allowed advertisers to reach more eyeballs. In the seventh, he notes digital slot “machines’ televisions themes and resemblance to consumer gadgets gave them an aura of entertainment innocence and attracted a new generation of prey.” He does not address why similitude to TV programs is useful in keeping “anxious, depressed women” at the slot machines? After going in great detail over the history of booze, smokes, sugars, gambling and the like, Courtwright jumps straight to smartphones and the Internet, without acknowledging the role of televisions in our long march to digital serfdom. This crucial step in the human story paved the way for the slavish screen devotion that keeps our attention affixed to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for hours on end.
Half a century before the current panic over children not wanting to set down their “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops,” children (and adults) began to struggle spending their time in ways that did not involve sitting in front of the TV. It was not so long ago that children rushed out of the school bus and into their homes so they could plop down and watch Nickelodeon. Nowadays, that function is largely filled by iPads, but screen “addiction” was not invented by Steve Jobs, and this book would have benefited from a study into why it was (and still is) difficult to sit in a room with a television without turning it on. Unlike video games and iPhones, televisions’ pull over us may not be easily ascribable to dopamine science (and in no possible way can be demonstrative of hormesis), but something certainly happened to our brains since the 1950s, and I bet it would not have taken too much effort for Courtwright to find a way to place culpability at the feet of the “limbic capitalists.”
Despite this omission, “The Age of Addiction” is very much worth your time. Sooner or later we as a society are going to have to confront the role that Big Business plays in kneecapping us, especially since, as Courtwright mentions, the Silicon Valley types themselves refuse to let their offspring anywhere near the addictive tech products they foist upon us. To the extent that he suggests any sort of next steps, Courtwright implores his readers to operate “against excess.” That is all well and good, but that advice will be no match for the moneymaking machine designed to promote excess in all aspects of life. Parents and policymakers alike need constant vigilance in order to confront the system of “limbic capitalism,” establishing more limits than currently exist and curbing the influence of this destructive system on future generations. Vice and bad habits may be inescapable, but as Courtwright’s history shows us, they can be fought.
“No Place I Would Rather Be” Review: We Miss Reading Roger Angell
Well, this was a treat. Surprisingly, the best baseball writing I have read all year comes in a book written about baseball writing. That new book is called “No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing” by Joe Bonomo. In it, Bonomo takes the reader on a scenic journey through the annals of Angell, baseball’s preeminent philosopher-scribe. Nearing a hundred years old, Angell no longer writes much, and “No Place I Would Rather Be” evokes more than a little sadness at the prolific insight we once had access to as fans of America’s pastime.
This book comes out at a time when there are high profile clamors (including from the commissioner himself) of a crisis in baseball. A view of baseball history through the lens of Angell, whose first encounters with the sport occurred when its headliners were Ruth and Gehrig, alleviates this concern. Baseball is always in flux, and if something is eternally in crisis mode then there is no crisis at all.
What we do have in today’s day and age is a crisis in baseball writing, a fact little acknowledged throughout the game. Perhaps it is unfair to compare modern sportswriters to Roger Angell, since he was always sui generis, but even if Angell does not like to be lumped into such a group, past generations also had talents such as Grantland Rice, David Halberstam and Roger Kahn. Today’s readers, on the other hand, get to read an army of bloggers whose greatest strength is missing the forest for the trees.
Modern baseball writers can be divided into two categories. On one hand, you have the statheads, supremely knowledgeable about the way baseball is now played and how rosters are currently constructed, conversant not just in the alphabet soup of WAR and wRC+ and xwOBA but also in more immediately useful information such as batted ball profile and swinging strike percentage. This faction, sometimes called “the nerds,” is obviously ascendant and clearly has useful information to impart. (Fangraphs writer to MLB front office is now a legitimate career path). Unfortunately, its practitioners too often rely on numbers to do the talking for them, occasionally aided by graphs and GIFs. In combing through troves of data to find topics to write about, these authors have a tendency to lose track of the sportswriter’s prime directive — craft a compelling narrative for the reader to follow.
On the other side of today’s chasm, you will find the traditionalists, the old school BBWAA members whose work has appeared on the back page of your local sports section for at least two decades. This type of baseball writer has no time for baseball’s analytical revolution. Yet, instead of sensing an opportunity when the big brains of the baseball writing corps had trouble converting numbers to text, these writers went the opposite direction, lowering their standard to appeal to the lowest common denominator of baseball fan. Apparently thinking that any knowledgeable fan was already lost to the statheads, these traditionalists began filing stories so banal it is a wonder they get paid to write them (usually quite a bit more than the nerds).
Getting to relive Roger Angell’s heyday through Joe Bonomo’s book is a reminder that baseball writing can be intellectual and accessible. But it is also a reminder that the combination is rare and that save for some propitious circumstances we might not have been blessed with it in the first place. Although “No Place I Would Rather Be” is not a biography, it succeeds in exploring the conditions that made Roger Angell Roger Angell.
The son of a union leader and the first fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine (and stepson of E. B. White), Angell was born and reared in an environment in which words mattered. He also grew up in a city that featured the two best baseball teams of the first quarter of the 20th century, the Giants and Yankees, whose domination in their respective leagues would be enough to catch the attention and devotion of the lonely child from a broken home.
Unlike most so-called journalists, Angell did not set out to be a sportswriter. In fact, he did not pen his first baseball piece for the New Yorker until 1962, when he was over 40 years old. When given his first assignment, he brought his background in fiction-writing to the task and the rest is history.
With Joe Bonomo, this history is in good hands. For the book, Bonomo drew both from the vast archive of Angell’s published work and from the writer’s copious notes. Putting the two together, he is able to add color to the sketch that Angell has provided himself through all these years of confessional baseball writing. An anecdote about the 1986 World Series and Angell’s conflicting allegiances is most revealing in this regard.
“No Place I Would Rather Be” is a great read for devoted fans of Roger Angell as for those who are only obliquely familiar with him. Either way, it will make you pine for his take on the game. The good news is that even if another Roger Angell is not likely to grace us with his presence anytime soon, he has given us thousands of pages to revisit whenever we have the need to reminisce.
“Bitcoin Billionaires” Review: The Winklevii Get Their Second Act
In 2009’s “Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook,” Ben Mezrich recreated the pitch the Winklevoss twins delivered to Mark Zuckerberg: “If it made any money, they’d all do well. But until then, Mark could use the launch of the Web site to rehabilitate his image.”
Ten years and a quarter-billion-dollar movie later, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are the ones whose images need rehabilitation. Because of the success of Mezrich’s book and the resulting film, the sobriquet “Winklevii” has become synonymous with entitlement, privilege and litigation. Mezrich’s latest book, “Bitcoin Billionaires” details the 6’5″ brothers’ attempt to slough off that reputation by making it big in what they call “the world’s oldest social network” — money.
“Bitcoin Billionaires” is mildly compelling as a recounting of the early days of cryptocurrency, as the Wild West of drug dealers and anarchists transitioned to a more respectable (and lawful) store of value under Winklevoss supervision. Of more interest to Mezrich is the twins’ redemption arc, as the author has a clear sense of guilt over impugning their character all those years ago.
And it is not hard to see why. A decade ago, the Winklevoss were the bad guys, symbols of a Harvard elite frustrated by the breakdown of a system to which us common folk would never have access in the first place. Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, was our tribune to the patriciate, our man on the inside charged with disassembling the centuries-old structures that have long separated the many from the privileged few.
Zuckerberg succeeded in that quest, but it is no longer clear that he was our hero in the story. Facebook has created a brave new world that may in fact be far worse than the one designed to favor Ivy League rowers from Greenwich, Connecticut. Instead of a society built on rules and purpose and mutual respect, we now have one in which the most defining features are hatred, anomie and mutual distrust.
The creator of Facebook is not solely responsible for the breakdown we currently find ourselves in, but he is less sympathetic than he once was, especially when you compound Facebook’s deleterious effect on society with the indifference the company has shown to protecting its vast troves of user data.
All this is to say that while “Bitcoin Billionaires” attempts to rehabilitate the Winklevoss reputation with an exploration into their background and work ethic, the biggest thing the brothers have going for them is that they are not Mark Zuckerberg and they did not invent Facebook. The rest — namely, becoming the public faces of cryptocurrency — is gravy.
But gravy is tasty, and “Bitcoin Billionaires” is a very fun read. Mezrich’s breezy writing style makes this a perfect summer companion, even if you have never found yourself wondering what the Winklevoss twins are up to these days. It is a testament to Mezrich’s storytelling that what is essentially a “rich get richer” narrative (that begins in Ibiza and ends at Burning Man) can be marketed as a story of redemption and get away with it. As an added bonus, you will finish the book with a better understanding of how digital currency works. With Facebook announcing its own attempt to launch a cryptocurrency, this will be useful information in navigating whatever world Mark Zuckerberg decides to create next.
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