Reading in Trump’s American dystopia

For a voracious reader like me, retirement should be close to nirvana. In fact, before I retired at the end of 2016 I had a magnet on a file cabinet in my office saying, “Born to Read, Forced to Work.” And a self-imposed COVID lockdown should add even more time for reading. Yet as the charts below demonstrate, my reading declined dramatically. The reason: Trump.

It’s a mental toll to live under a president — fully enabled by the GOP — who is (limiting myself to words starting with the letters “c” and “d”) childish, clownish, clueless, corrupt, cowardly, crass, criminal, crude, cruel, dangerous, delusional, demagogic, depraved, devious, dim, disgraceful, dishonest, disparaging, and disreputable. It truly is a form of PTSD — President Trump Stress Disorder.

Books read


Total pages read

Think I’m exaggerating the Trump effect? Let’s look closer.

In 2017, the number of books red was about the same and there was a slight decline in total pages. Yet that needs to be put in context. I was still reviewing books at that time, creating reading obligations. I posted 29 book reviews that year and read several books from publishers for which reviews weren’t posted. Notably, the last one review — also the last post until this month — was on December 18. I also read 6 book as a judge for the John Leonard Prize, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle each year for the best first book in any genre. Thus, more than a quarter of the books I read were “obligations.”

Some themes also appeared in 2017. One is reflected in this list, which I’ll let you interpret:

The next theme is more obvious:

Finally, I’ve told a lot of people over the last four years that I feel like I’m living in a science fiction novel. My reading may reflect that. From 2011-2016, science fiction novels accounted for about 12% of my reading. It increased slightly in 2017 but there’s an important trend. Of the 22 science fiction novels I read that year,  59% were in the last half of the year. During 2018-2020, a full 28% of my reading consisted of science fiction books. It’s likely immersion in a science fictional world I could leave figures into the gradual increase in reading over those years. An invented dystopia is far more acceptable than a psychotic Trumpian nation.

Hopefully, this week this strain of PTSD start disappearing.

I divide all readers into two classes — those who read to remember and those who read to forget.

William Lyon Phelps, Yearbook

Impeach the asshat — again

First post in three years. One effect of Trump’s American Dystopia. I’ve abandoned social media, don’t watch television news and really only scan headlines to avoid becoming furious, despondent or both.

As he nears the exit, there’s plenty of people out there who seem shocked his supporters totally fucking crazy lunatics storming the Capitol.  Where have they been for the last four years? And what about those who turned a blind eye and enabled this POS? That clearly includes South Dakota’s entire congressional delegation and our excuse for a governor.

For anyone who’s been sleeping, David Leonhardt of the New York Times summarized the last for years explaining the need for impeachment in his Jan. 11 newsletter.

He rejects basic foundations of American government that other presidents, from both parties, have accepted for decades.

He has tried to reverse an election result and remain in power by persuading local officials to commit fraud. He incited a mob that attacked the Capitol — and killed a police officer — while Congress was meeting to certify the result. Afterward, Trump praised the rioters.

This behavior was consistent with Trump’s entire presidency. He has previously rejected the legitimacy of election results and encouraged his supporters to commit violence. He has tried to undermine Americans’ confidence in the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the military, Justice Department prosecutors, federal judges, the Congressional Budget Office, government scientists, government health officials and more. He has openly used the presidency to enrich his family.

In the simplest terms, Trump seems to believe a president should be able to do whatever he wants. He does not appear to believe in the system of the government that the Constitution prescribes — a democratic republic.

Yet there is a significant chance he could win the presidency again, in 2024. He remains popular with many Republican voters, and the Electoral College currently gives a big advantage to Republicans. If he is not disqualified from future office, Trump could dominate the Republican Party and shape American politics for the next four years.

And as the quote below demonstrates, the 25th Amendment is a far weaker solution that impeachment
I’ll be posting more in a few days about something I attribute almost entirely to feeling like I’ve been living in a science fiction novel. But for those who question why you would impeach a president just before he leaves office, listen to Leonhardt.

Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States[.]

U.S. Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 3

Book Review: Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Sometimes you must wonder if we’re on the verge of a surveillance state. There’s the NSA (and likely many others) closely watching electronic communications. Cameras intended to monitor traffic flow capture far more than that. Public and private places with camera surveillance are ubiquitous. The concern thus raises for individual privacy is a core of Nick Harkaway’s latest novel, Gnomon.

Harkaway envisions a near-future Great Britain in which an AI, the Witness, has access to total surveillance of the population and all information. It is a key to the System, a permanent direct democracy with ongoing polling and which allows citizens to vote directly on the country’s issues. As a “precautionary principle” to ensure the System keeps society the best it can be, it is occasionally necessary to investigate certain individuals via neurological access to their thoughts and memories. The subjects tend to emerge “happier, more organised and more productive” because the aftercare works like a “tune-up.”

Now, for the first time, someone died during an examination — Diane Hunter, a nonconformist writer. Mielikki Neith, a die-hard inspector for the Witness, is called on to investigate what happened by accessing the recording of Hunter’s memories. But she discovers four additional personas in Hunter’s mind. They are Constantine, a Greek investment wizard; Athenais, an alchemist and the mother of St. Augustine’s son; Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian artist who ends up doing the graphic design for the massively multiplayer online game (Witnessed)being created by his granddaughter’s company; and the title character, a future collective consciousness akin to the hive mind of Star Trek’s Borg.

As the book’s protagonist, Neith provides a framework police procedural story. Her investigation leads her to wonder if the System she believes in so fervently has an inherent defect or is perhaps even being manipulated. While intertwined with that framework, the other four characters create an esoteric labyrinth of mysticism and arcana somewhat reminiscent of Umberto Eco. Their stories unfold through a multitude of individual discourses as Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s interrogation. They are the novel’s ultimate failing.

Many of these chapters are confounding, almost impenetrable. They even occasionally take us into Hell and outside time. Several, especially Athenais’s, refer to so many mythological figures and ideas — with some early Christian history and symbolism thrown in — a reader is well-advised to have some sort of reference work handy. Harkaway’s word choices also call for reference material. He seems to prefer the obscure (“novacula, ”saccades,” ”pursuivants,” “apocatastasis”) over the straightforward.

Finally, many of these discourses are too lengthy and digressive. Gnomon clocks in at 700 pages. Granted, the story is complex, but it would have benefited greatly had several hundred pages been eliminated. As a result, I’m guessing a significant number of readers who start the book will not see it through to completion.

The universe has cancer.

Nick Harkaway,Gnomon

Book Review: Flashpoint Trieste: The First Battle of the Cold War by Christian Jennings

From time to time, history books present a stumbling block for readers. Some written by historians, particularly academics, read like they were — well — written by a historian. It’s not just writing style. There’s also that pattern of an opening chapter or introduction telling us what each subsequent chapter talks about, with each subsequent chapter opening with an overview of the chapter and closing with a summary of it.

That certainly isn’t the case with Christian Jennings’s Flashpoint Trieste: The First Battle of the Cold War. It reflects the beauty of concise, expositional writing. As a foreign correspondent, Jennings writes more like a journalist. This enables him to give the book a pace often lacking in more academic books. At the same time, though, he too often uses sentence fragments such as, for example,”Which had included what was now Yugoslavia.”

Flashpoint Trieste tells a story of World War II and its aftermath not widely known. The city, located on the Adriatic, was annexed to Italy after World War I but Yugoslavians believed it should be part of their country. As World War II came to a close, British and American leaders feared that Tito being a communist could mean Trieste could end up essentially controlled by Stalin. This led to what was essentially a race to be the first to take the city as the war came to a close.

Ultimately, this meant the city was a geopolitical focus of the U.S., Great Britain, Italy, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Flashpoint Trieste examines not only the interests and actions of each but also the history of the region, the ethnic tensions and bloody reprisal, and the melange of intelligence forces and operations.

While interesting, the book suffers from the antithesis of the problems that can arise in academia. While very readable, it seems to lack the rigor, continuity and depth of historical method. Jennings certainly shouldn’t be condemned for not being a professional historian. Yet in a genre with authors like Candice Millard, Ron Chernow and Hampton Sides, for example, Flashpoint Trieste requires more.

The actual status of Trieste can be determined at leisure. Possession is nine points of the law.

Winston Churchill to Harry Truman, quoted in
Christian Jennings, Flashpoint Trieste

Weekend Edition: 10-28

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • “No Fatties”: When Health Care Hurts (“According to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, one out of three doctors responds to obesity negatively and associates it with poor hygiene, hostility, dishonesty, and noncompliance, viewing fat patients as ‘lazy, lacking in self-control, non-compliant, unintelligent, weak-willed and dishonest.'”)
  • Trump Is the New ________ (“Once in front of the camera … historian-heavyweights trade in … scholarship for trivia-minded TV punditry. They hawk banality. Quizzed by anchors, boxed into panels, these academics have become cable contestants in a game of History-wood Squares.”)
  • Is There Any Hope for the Future? (“We must accept that any subjective religion, philosophy, or opinion can’t be a basis for defining what is true.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.

Justice Louise J. Brandeis (concurring), Whitney v. California (1927)

Weekend Edition: 10-21

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won’t give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had

Joni Mitchell, “California,” Blue