Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Some weeks ago, I read a New York Times review of Jared Diamond’s latest:

If you’ve ever been at a wedding or conference or on board a United connection from O’Hare, and been cornered by a man with Theories About It All, and you came away thinking, “That was a great experience,” have I got the book for you.

Jared Diamond’s “Upheaval” belongs to the genre of 30,000-foot books, which sell an explanation of everything. I travel often and see them a lot: at airport bookstores, where Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari (both of whom blurbed “Upheaval”) and Diamond, of course, deserve permanent shelves; and in the air, where I’ve noticed that a pretty disproportionate fraction of readers who read in the quiet of 30,000 feet have a preference for writers who write from the viewpoint of 30,000 feet.

When Diamond describes “highly egalitarian social values” as an ethos that has “remained unchanged” in Australia, despite having written a chapter about the country’s history of legalized racism, he is using a definition of egalitarian that applies only to white people. When he says, “Social status in Japan depends more on education than on heredity and family connection,” he is ignoring what it means to be born a woman. “Of course, my list of U.S. problems isn’t exhaustive,” he admits. “Problems that I don’t discuss include race relations and the role of women.” You know, the problems affecting the vast majority of Americans.

I don’t quote this by way of piling on Diamond. I’m pretty sure I won’t read Upheaval, but I also doubt it’s going to do as much damage in the world as, say, any given bestseller by the NYT’s own Thomas Friedman.

I mention it here because that review got me thinking about a time when I was really drawn to this kind of book: Big, framework-y pop science and history narratives with (at least ostensibly) a grand cross-disciplinary synthesis to communicate. Stuff like Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. (Subtitles included for maximum effect.)

I pulled that specific grouping of books out of memory, but the list probably stuck in my head in the first place because I wrote this p1k3 entry, or others like it. It’s cringey material, like a lot of things I wrote in those years. I was at the time 23 years old, inexperienced, constantly drunk, and months out of a mediocre undergraduate degree with no idea what to do next. I had spent time around very smart people who were nevertheless too much in the grip of Evolutionary Psych and similar ideas, and I was too lazy by far to be a tenth as well-read as I pretended to be. In general I was insufferable, and it comes through in the text.

As usual, “I didn’t understand a lot of things when I was younger” is true, but not very interesting. I have plenty of regrets, but if I couldn’t forgive myself for being a posturing jackass when I was trying to figure out my place in the world, I’d just be permanently crippled by self-loathing, which is no use to anyone.

Anyhow, what strikes me now, aside from a lot of ideological drift, is how much my own hopes and ambitions have changed since then. I once wanted to write something big, encompassing, cross-cutting, etc. I wanted, even if I didn’t have the work ethic or the cognitive capacity, to understand as much as I could and abstract it across as many domains as I could touch. I was inclined to manifestos, grand plans, programs, prescriptions, the idea of an overarching research project. At least I thought about those things a lot. And even once I’d mostly given up on designing that kind of project, maybe I sincerely thought that something more or less whole, greater than the sum of its parts, could emerge from the slow iteration of my work. (One from 2007 and one from 2016 suggest as much.)

In 2019, I still hold plenty of strong opinions (a few even grounded in experience), but I hope I have fewer illusions about their coherence or my grasp of the overall set of problems. I think a lot about just how brittle and partial and misleading the materials of history tend to be, how difficult and fallible it is to construct science, journalism, or historical narrative that doesn’t crucially misrepresent the world. The feeling that once kept me from writing fiction — an uneasiness about my ability to describe or portray any experience outside my own — has deepened and spread to other domains.

These days I’m uncomfortable, despite a long-time fixation on the idea that you should write for someone, with the idea of publishing at all, at least in the deranged and weaponized shitstorm climate of the modern network. I haven’t given up on the long project of a lifetime’s jotting and correspondence. If anything I do more of it — but I don’t expect it to yield much besides a better memory and some communication with friends. Those are good things in themselves, and I’m not seeking any broader justification for the habits that underpin them. Still, they’re very different from the work of the writer I might have become, if I’d had more raw ability and worked harder at it.

I’m not altogether sure that’s a bad thing.

(As a postscript, I want to acknowledge the strong possibility that I’m still insufferable.)