11. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays


Richard Hofstadter


I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.

This is a collection of essays by historian Richard Hofstadter. Though I doubt it has ever really lost relevance since it was published in 1964, it has definitely gained a lot in the past year or so. It’s titled after Hofstadter’s most famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (which I’ll just refer to as “The Paranoid Style” from now on), and that essay was the reason I picked up this book. The collection adds a bunch of other essays loosely based around the themes that attracted Hofstadter in this period of his career: the cranks, kooks, and mad prophets of American political life. Continue reading “11. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays”


10. On Writing


Stephen King


You must not come lightly to the blank page.

In the crowded genre of books about writing, we can now declare Stephen King’s On Writing to be a standard. It’s so often read and recommended that many who have never tried a word of King’s fiction will yet have this one on their shelves. And for good reason. King, whose stories have entered our cultural lexicon in a way that other fiction mega-sellers, like John Grisham or Danielle Steel, couldn’t dream of, is as successful and prolific a guide as you could wish for. Continue reading “10. On Writing”

7. Silent Spring

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson


The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

Fifty-five years ago a voice emerged to report on a little known and unromantic cause: environmental destruction due to chemical pesticide use. Rachel Carson wrote a steady and meticulous essay, calling for environmental protection with a keen feeling for the damage being wrought on the world’s ecosystems, and confidence that her readers would share in her outrage. Her book Silent Spring was not only a well-researched polemic—it was also an ode to the natural world as she saw it: a wonder of complexity, a system of checks and balances in which every piece was necessary to the health of the whole. Carson’s descriptions of environment and biology broke new ground in popular writing on science and are still some of the finest examples of the genre. She shows us nature as a delicate machine, which, if tampered with, can run itself into grotesque and alarming shapes. Recklessly transforming the natural world, she wrote, would have effects on humanity that could last generations. With its enormous popularity, Silent Spring kick-started the environmental consciousness of a nation and, along with the ensuing denials and smears from the chemical industry, sparked a new phase of the never-ending battle between commerce and the defenders of a clean and hospitable planet. Continue reading “7. Silent Spring”

5. Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell Down and Out

George Orwell


You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here you are to the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.

Much of the world works on the principle that everyone should be afraid of poverty. For the middle class, suspended between poor and rich, this fear shapes most of our ideas about success. Poverty is the dark threat always looming, and we learn to envy those who have so distanced themselves from it that they can forget it exists. And so, we go to work. Life becomes a treadmill that could at any moment pitch us backwards into destitution if we fail to keep up, so we must continue running. It’s an odious way to live when you think about it, so in our baser moments we delude ourselves into thinking that those who live in poverty must in some way deserve it. If those people don’t deserve their way of life, how can I say I deserve mine? So the fear of being poor feeds into the stigma and misconception around poverty, leaving mostly ignorance about what it actually is like, by those who may never experience it but will always dread it. Continue reading “5. Down and Out in Paris and London”

3. The Song Machine

John Seabrook The Song Machine

John Seabrook


I saw the sign
And it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign

Early in The Song Machine, John Seabrook describes what must be the defining feature of pop music today. He opens with a scene involving “the Boy,” his fifth-grader son who has begun to listen to Top 40 stations as he rides with his dad to and from school every day. Stirred by his child’s new palate, Seabrook starts listening to Top 40 as well (which, he immediately corrects us, is properly called Contemporary Hits Radio, or CHR). He reluctantly abandons his dad rock for Flo Rida and the like, as a sort of bonding exercise with his son.

Seabrook’s initial reaction to modern pop is that of anyone as highly cultivated and deeply refined as he. He asks himself:

Is this music? Continue reading “3. The Song Machine”