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Saturday, February 18, 2012


I have on occasion remarked that I do not read very much, and that is indeed true, if by "read" one refers to philosophical works, or serious fiction, or diplomatic history.  But in fact, I have throughout my life consumed enormous amounts of schlock fiction.  As a boy, I read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories, and then segued into science fiction [as I reported in my Autobiography, my first published work was a letter to Astounding Science Fiction defending Aristotle against the "Non-Aristotelian logic" that was then all the rage in the science fiction pulp world.]  Once I got to college, I gave up science fiction as a thing of my youth, and devoted myself to detective stories.  I have read literally every novel written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Marjorie Allingham, John Dickson Carr [and also Carter Dickson, one of his pen names], and Rex Stout.  I guess this counts as "reading" in the eyes of some, but to me there is really no difference between reading a shelf of John Dickson Carr mysteries and watching seven seasons of Bones or MI5 on my computer courtesy of Netflix.  It all comes under the broad and capacious category of "Wasting Time."
I have spent my entire life wasting vast amounts of time, but at least when I was being paid a wage, there were classes to teach, papers to grade, and books to write in the interim, thereby creating the illusion that I was a serious person engaged in something worthwhile.  Now that I am retired, however, the wasting of time seems to have become my calling.  Fortunately, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I live, has a first-rate public library well-stocked with schlock fiction catering to a wide range of tastes.  My own taste these days runs to spy novels, and I have read scores of them in the past three and a half years.
But there is a fly in the ointment.  It seems that I have become hyper-sensitive to the political prejudices of the authors, which they often reveal in the casual asides of their characters, and I simply find it impossible to read a spy novel whose political orientation is antithetical to my own.  For example, an author named Daniel Silva has created a character -- Gabriel Allon -- who is both a fabled Israeli Mossad killer and also a world-class fine art restorer.  Silva is a graceful writer, and I enjoy his rendering of the London art world.  But Silva [not merely the character, Allon, but the novelist Silva] is a partisan of modern Israel who cannot keep himself from introducing into his narratives political judgments about the Palestinians and the Middle East that set my teeth on edge.  Try as I may, I just cannot get through his novels any more.  It is a great loss.
Just yesterday, I went to the library and took out a new Brad Thor thriller, featuring his character, Scott Harvath [neither of these names strikes me as real, but that is par for the course in the world of schlock fiction.]   I got thirty pages or so into it and found myself gagging at Thor's politics. 
Now, this is never a problem for me on the rare occasions when I read serious literature.  It would never cross my mind to worry about the political presuppositions of one of Shakespeare's history plays, or to cavil at Dostoyevsky's reactionary thrust in Crime and Punishment.  I derive the greatest imaginable pleasure from Jane Austen's novels, despite the fact that politically I am hardly a partisan of the early nineteenth century English landed gentry.  if I can so willingly suspend my ideological judgment when reading those works, why on earth can I not do the same for a cheap bit of time-passing fiction?
I am left with Oxygen, Nick Lane's first book, which I had never read.  I am 70 pages into it now, and though it is in fact not as good as his later books, it is sheer pleasure to read.  It is still wasting time, of course -- what earthly need have I of details about the role of Oxygen in the evolution of life?  But I can read it without once having to suspend my political prejudices.  if this keeps up, I may find myself driven to reading philosophy!


Bjorn said...

If you're reading spy novels, I hope you've already exhausted John le Carré's marvellous series of Cold War espionage novels.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have read a number of them, but not all. I very much liked his late novel -- was it called The Tailor of Panama? I just saw the new movie version of the classic Tinker etc. which was not bad, although I think maybe no up to the original movie.

Unknown said...

Maybe you should switch to police procedurals. They're apolitical, merely anticriminal.

Ulf said...

Try the series of novels by Phillip Kerr about Bernie Gunther. The first three, collected in one volume as Berlin Noir, are truly excellent.

If you want police novels with a leftist slant, try old Swedish novels about Martin Beck. That couple (they were married) defined the current "Scandinavian dystopian" subgenre.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Both good suggestions. I shall check the library. Thank you.

Lounger said...

I just finished an article on, by Francis Fukuyama, entitled "The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?" Looks to be right down your alley. I would be interested to read your critique of the article.

David Goldman said...

Gave up science fiction, eh? Try China Mieville's The City and The City. It's a police procedural with a brilliant and intriguing, but only mildly sci-fi, twist.

And Mieville is a first-rate leftist: in addition to his novels, he's also published his doctoral dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. (His politics don't show up in his novels in any obvious or heavy-handed way, though.) If that doesn't pull you back towards sci-fi/genre fiction, I don't know what will!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I opnde heard one of the two authors of the Ellery Queen books {I forget which one] say that no one ever reads both science fiction and detective stories at the same time. It struck me as true, but of course it may be baloney.

I see whether I can find the Foreign Affairs piece on line.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I found the Fukuyama article, but I do not seem to be able to get more than the first several paragraphs without subscribing to FOREIGN AFFAIRS, which I confess I do not want to do. How did you access it?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My sister has just told me about the latest P. D. James novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, with all the Jane Austen characters from Pride and Prejudice on parade. Sounds wonderful. I have ordered it from Amazon [with one-click -- astonishing.]

Rob said...

How do you feel about Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I read some of their books a very long time ago, and now associate them with Humphrey Bogart movies. I haven't been reading much in the way of detective novels -- although there are a few contemporary authors whose works I gobble up as soon as they come to the library. The principal trouble -- this is true of all books, of course -- is that I read them much faster than even the fastest authors can write them [Well, maybe not Simenon, but I haven't read a Maigret novel in decades.]

Lounger said...

This is the link to the article I read. A note at the front end of the article says it is available until 3/1/2012 for non-subscribers. I am not a subscriber either.

Lounger said...

I just sent the text of the article to your Umass email address.

GTChristie said...

You don't have to subscribe. Click "Register" just above the subscriber buttons, put in your email address and name, create a password, then re-paste the address of the article into the browser and BAM! You're in.

The article will stir your juices. I won't spoil it for you.

Lounger said...

GT, thanks for the explanation. I must have registered and then forgot that I did.

PS: in earlier comments I was Lounge Leader; now I am just Lounger, which is more correct since I do not lead, just lounge.

Lounger said...

You might enjoy the series of novels by Laurie R. King beginning with "The Beekeeper's Apprentice". The beekeeper is Sherlock Holmes, who did not die in that plunge over the waterfall.
If you would like to read a series of mysteries that feature a philosopher as the protagonist, pick up "The Sunday Philosophy Club", the first in the series by Alexander McCall Smith.

Conrad Decker said...

I don't know if you have ever been to Cosma Shalizi's online notebooks. This physicist is one of the most voracious readers of all time and he has many suggestions for reading in books about statistical mechanics to fantasy books. His site is one of the most interesting and useful on the web. He helps me keep in touch with a range of things.

Conrad Decker said...

I don't know if you have ever been to Cosma Shalizi's online notebooks. This physicist is one of the most voracious readers of all time and he has many suggestions for reading in books about statistical mechanics to fantasy books. His site is one of the most interesting and useful on the web. He helps me keep in touch with a range of things.

Superfluous Man said...

If you are a liberal, Jerome Doolittle's crime fiction books as well as KD Constantine's books are excellent. Jerome also has an excellent book available for free on his website called "The Dead Zoo" which is loosely based on Ronald Reagan's boyhood ambition, which was to become a taxidermist. I won't spoil it for you, but the book is loosely based on what I believe to be Reagan's wish to render us all back to the 1950s. Literally. The book is free because it is so gruesome, no publisher would touch it. It's one of the few that he's written that is not a detective story. His others non detective stories are "The Bombing Officer" and the ones in the Time Life series about the Appalachian Mountains.

The Doolittle books are also available as shareware books online. The first chapter of each is on his site, if the first chapter appeals to you then there is an address you can write to get the whole book. If you like the book then he asks that you send him five bucks for each book. Don't like the book? He doesn't ask anything other than that you be honest.

KC Constantine's are considered some of the best in that the language he uses for his characters is incredibly realistic. And they are detective crime fiction stories through and through and will appeal to most liberals' sense of fair play by their portrayal of how badly the conservatives have screwed things up. Some of them might be better called crime noir.

Superfluous Man said...

Professor Wolff, my wife is the real murder mystery reader in this household so I asked her for some novels for someone with a dilemma like yours. She's an academic copyeditor by day and a murder mystery reader by night.

She recommended the following serious husband-wife team who are very left and as she says "they go further left". Here's the link to their names:öwall_and_Wahlöö

Also she highly recommends John Shannon, a California finder of lost children detective stories writer.öwall_and_Wahlöö

She's got hundreds and hundreds of writers under her belt in this genre and I don't think she would lead you onto a bad path. John Shannon occasionally comments on stories at the Bad Attitudes blog of which I occasionally now, but frequently previously, blogged on.

I think you'll find these as left as they go. I'll ask her again later, she's editing a book now so that's tedious work and she doesn't want to get away from the chapter she's on but I'm thinking she has many more recommendations.

Superfluous Man said...

Now, professor, finally let me taunt you with a blog post I made several years ago. It was originally a teaser to my wife primarily, but it applies to anyone who is a murder mystery detective crime fiction noir reader or a reader of any combination of those phrases.

Superfluous Man said...

My wife also recommends George Pelecanos. I included the html click through link method so you can click on that directly.

A direct link to the page that teaches this method is
available right here.

Let me know if learning the click through html method is something you would like to do but need help with. It is very easy but I'm often too lazy to do it myself but once you do use it a few times, it becomes easy. I'll gladly follow up if you have questions or need some help. Just comment here and I will follow up, or I could write you directly although I prefer not to publicly post my email address as I find people who I used to know in SC or some of my right wing family members often start sending me those right wing "jokes", racist commentary or revolting right wing lies and propaganda.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I started to post a thank you for all the great suggestions. I went to the library and came back with two of the many books recommended, one of which I am now reading. But something weird has happened to my blog posting. I can create a new blog post and put in the title, but the computer will not allow me to access the body of the post -- a little symbol rotates, indicating that it is loading something. I tried rebooting and all that simple stuff, but nothing works. Does anybody have any ideas?

Superfluous Man said...

Did you try clearing your cache in your browser. Sometimes a bad or stuck cookie can foul things up. However, when you clear out your cookies, you have to log back into sites that you are logged into. What browser are you using? And what Operating system. Windows, Apple or my favorite, the free operating system of Gnu/Linux, of which Ubuntu is the favorite. I am using Lubuntu which is a lighter version of Ubuntu since it runs faster than standard Linux on my older computer.

If you use firefox, do you have any addons? I use adblock Plus and Better Privacy and some others in Firefox. But sometimes Firefox won't load some sites for me. So I alternatively Google Chrome and the European browser, Opera. The Linux distributions which are free also offer a number of other alternative browsers. The Gnu/Linux distributions like ubuntu as well as Apple's Operating System are also much less prone to malware, spyware, viruses, hackers and other malware. I don't use Internet Explorer because I don't think they make it for Linux. On the other hand, it is not true that any of these systems are unbreakable as many Apple and Ubuntu or other Linux systems users have said in the past. But they are much less problematic in these areas than Windows. Many universities are now using Ubuntu or other Gnu/Linux distribution because it is free and they only charge you if you want service or support which I've found that you don't need for home computers if you are willing to learn some coding which is somewhat like the old DOS that Microsoft began its journey that broke IBM and kept them out of the desktop computer market. A great many universities are using Linux now because it is so much cheaper to install than Windows and Apple charges heavily for their hardware. As an example of how tough the Linux operating system is, the US Army uses Red Hat Linux, which is not what home users will want to use because it's not really meant for single users but for multiple installations.

I have read in the past that the reason we have these different operating systems is that because when most people were using Windows only, the entire national network of computers was susceptible to being shut down if foreign hackers invaded our systems.