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Read the “Ten Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar.  Pay special attention to number six:

A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.

That is a fantastic idea.  I think it’s worth reflecting on this and then coming up with my own list.  Off the top of my head, Williams James and CS Lewis would be way up there for tone and rhetoric. But I need to think much longer on it, if we’re talking about 10 books (and I won’t be cheeky and say the 10 books of Plato’s Republic or something, though that can totally count).

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One writes as one reads. Few are the things I like reading more than a great review. Take Samuel Moyn, recently, in the Boston Review on Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

That is an amazing paragraph. I think a good review should give the reader as sense of 1) the original text as it understands itself and 2) the unvarnished judgment of the reviewer. Judgment is the key, because often academic journals are littered with faint praise and faint criticism, or superficialities that teach us nothing. I don’t care if you liked the book, or hated it. How do you judge the work, in your capacity as a learned individual, with some expertise in the area?  This is what matters.  I don’t want compassionate reviewers but humane ones, who know who to praise and blame.  The modern ur-text here is Miguel Vatter’s review of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.

This is how you review a book.  If you have a better example I’d love to read it.

From the autobiographical preface to his mammoth History of England:

I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.

I never start the day reading what I’m supposed to be reading, though I always end the day that way. To wit, the last things I read last night was §29 of Being and Time on attunement, mood, and affect, and finished reading Franz Neumann’s essay “Anxiety and Politics”. This morning, I pulled a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis of the bookshelf (and IR scholar must go the Ls to retrieve Lebow, after all), and (re)discovered this passage on reading old books. Some quotes:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will corrected the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who see, most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it….None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

Never forget that Lewis’s book on Nature and Natural Right, on the Order of the Cosmos – The Abolition of Man – begins with a critique of a children’s grammar book. I’ve unconsciously followed Lewis’s advice (in previous posts here) for reading older books by pitting his understanding of Heart and Thumos against Fukuyama’s End of History, where Fukuyama reads Lewis in a purely material way to shape his argument on progress, science, capitalism, and democracy.

Pedagogically, one his hard pressed to disagree with Lewis’s point that it is far, far, easier for students to read Plato than Platonic scholarship. Students proved this to me earlier this year, in a wholly unexpected way. While designing a course on Cosmopolitanism, I left out a week of readings on the Enlightenment, specifically Lessing and Mendelssohn. But when we read a section from Kant’s Theory and Practice on International Right (“against Moses Mendelssohn”), my students preferred Mendelssohn. In fact, they were much more enamoured with Mendelssohn than they were Kant, or with Habermas and Rawls on deliberation and public reason. It behooves teachers to listen to their students.

It’s probably useful to list them all, in all their variants, in one place. Begin with Diogenes Laertius, compare the changes in Xenophon and Plato, as Strauss suggested on the first page of his Xenophon’s Socrates.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 2.5.40:

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.

Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.1:

I often wondered by what possible speeches those who indicted Socrates persuaded the Athenians that he deserved death from the city. For the indictment against him was something like the following: Socrates commits an injustice by not believing in the gods which the city believes and by bringing in new and different divine things; he commits an injustice also by corrupting the young.

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates to the Jury, §10:

And [Hermogenes] affirmed that Socrates said that, this being his view, when the plaintiffs accused him on the grounds that he did not believe in the gods in whom the city believes but brought in other strange daimonia and corrupted the young…

Plato, Apology of Socrates, 24b

It is something like this: it asserts that Socrates does an justice by corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel. The charge is of this sort.

Plato doesn’t report this part of his biography, though Diogenes Laertius does:

Justus of Tiberias in his book entitled The Wreath says that in the course of the trial Plato mounted the platform and began: “Though I am the youngest, men of Athens, of all who ever rose to address you”–whereupon the judges shouted out, “Get down! Get down!”

Xenophon, of course, couldn’t have spoken at the Trial of Socrates because he was busy leading 10,000 Greeks out of Asia, or something. One wonders what would have transpired if Xenophon rose to speak, and not Plato. That begs the question of whether Xenophon would have ever risen to speak in the same way.

In closing, compare Aristophanes’ charges against Socrates with Socrates’ charges against Gorgias.

I dare you to find someone currently reading a better crop of books right now than I am. OK, slight hyperbole, but this is a fun mix of pleasure and dissertation material: 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (this one has been a slow burn for a while now)

Michel Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended”, Lectures 1975-1976

Thucydides, Kthema es Aei

W. Robert Connor’s Thucydides

Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ edited by Rafael Major. 

Oh, and Dirk Hayhurst’s Out of My League. (baseball is the most esoteric of sports–being played between the lines, as it is–so this title is allowed).   

Also just finished Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, which is a book deserving of its own post.