New books for the new year

It’s time for our first column of the new year, although when I’m writing this, old man 2013 is still hanging on by his fingernails.

Last week, we did a look back at the past year, to discuss with you what we wrote about and what we didn’t write about. Sadly, we ran out of space, before we ran out of year, so this week, we want to complete our look at 2013. Since we got most of it in, last week, I also want to share with you some thoughts about two excellent books, which deserve your attention, and which I think many of you would greatly enjoy reading.

So, the year is young, let’s have a look:


I once was lucky enough to take an extensive concert tour with my college’s choir. The tour began with a lengthy flight in a commercial airplane.

Sitting aboard the plane with two of my friends we came to note that there was a small plastic bump in the plastic sheet which served as the ceiling above our seats. A small lighted oval within that bump said “D E F.” This launched a casual discussion of what that might mean.

I suggested it might be an abbreviation for the French phrase “Defense De Fumer,” which means “No Smoking.” My friends offered possible suggestions, as well. We quickly noted that every seat in front of us had the exact same sign, but the angle of the sign and the seats made it impossible to see if the rows of triple seats to our left said the same. We assumed that it did.

Eventually, when the plane had taken off and climbed to cruising elevation, I got up and used the rest room at the back of the plane. As I walked back up the aisle, I decided to check whether the seats on the left had the same sign. They didn’t. Their signs said “A B C.”

Isn’t it amazing how at times, one tiny piece of information can make an entire concept make sense? A book which has a great many “A B C” moments is the recently published “The Cave and the Light,” by Arthur Herman. The author has written a number of biographies, and is, perhaps, best known for his book “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”

This latest book discusses two men who lived well more than 2,000 years ago. One of the men was the other man’s teacher, in fact. Ironically, both of them had quite similar ideas, but they differed in one major area. Plato believed that there is an ideal for every natural thing. There is an ideal house, for example, and we are happiest if we build our house as close as we can get it to that ideal. He famously compared life to being inside a huge cave, while turned to face away from the opening.

From time to time, birds fly across the opening of the cave, and animals walk past it, casting black shadows on the wall we can see. From those shadows, we can only make estimates of what the birds and animals are really like, until we are able to struggle out of the cave and see for ourselves.

Aristotle, who was taught by Plato in his famed Academy, held that if we experiment – if we look at nature in as many circumstances as possible, at different times, and different temperatures, and different altitudes, etc. that we can move closer to truth. To seeing “the light,” in other words.

Herman believes that throughout history, one or the other of these great thinkers’ beliefs have come to have domination over the other, and then eventually to begin to cover up or wipe out the other, so that the persecuted ideas have overthrown their persecutors, only to repeat the cycle. His examinations range from St. Augustine to Martin Luther, to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

If nothing else, Herman provides a brilliant short precis of most of the trends in thought of western humanity. He portrays Christianity, with its belief that now we see through a glass darkly but will one day see truth, face to face, as a child of Plato’s thinking. He sees the political idea of democracy as a child of Aristotle’s belief in working toward an ideal, rather than seeking one which already exists and cannot be changed.

Considering the depth of the thinking, the book is usually easily read. He uses common examples, rather than esoteric ones, and he doesn’t bend ideas out of shape to make them fit his hypotheses.

I found myself in one period of history rooting for Plato to make a comeback, only – a few pages later – longing for Aristotle’s words and thoughts.

If your thinking runs to “I don’t care about none of that stuff,” obviously, the book is not for you, but if you enjoy being taught and surprised with understanding, it is a real pleasure to read.

“The Cave and the Light” has 572 pages in hard-bound edition, plus extensive notes and documentation. It was published in New York by Random House, in October 2013, and is marked for sale at $35. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-553-80730-1.


In December 1948, English author Eric Blair, who wrote under the pen name George Orwell, sent his publishers a manuscript of a novel which predicted a future in which humanity’s faith in its ability to take what is natural and improve it, would create a society in which all of life is a prison camp, where nobody would be allowed even to have a thought, which might change the programming which made sure that everything was perfect.

He titled his book by inverting the last two digits of 1948, and called the book “1984.” A central idea from the book was that a day would come when there was a “telescreen” in every home and every public location, which could both show people the reality which the government in charge wanted them to see. It would also see every action which the individuals took, however trivial.

When the year 1984 came and passed, many people breathed a sigh of relief, believing that Orwell’s hideous vision had been escaped and humanity had “dodged a bullet.”

American novelist Dave Eggers, whose autobiographical “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” has been reviewed in these pages, has written a novel in which Orwell’s dystopian future has come to be very much true, in our own day. Eggers benefits from knowledge which Orwell couldn’t possibly have known, such as that the telescreens of today might have a keyboard and a printer attached to them.

Orwell’s people could enjoy a few individual moments by turning out all the lights. Eggers’ version of “Big Brother,” has night-vision technology.

The central character of Eggers’ book is named Mae Holland. At the opening of the book, Mae is just arriving at a large computer information corporation to begin a job, which she quickly tells us she owes to the fact that her college roommate, her close friend Annie, has recommended her to get. The company is called “The Circle.”

Mae is attractive and bright, and she earned good grades and attended a good college, but upon graduation, she found there were few opportunities open to her. She got a job with her local utility company, but her pay was low – too low to deal with her hefty college loans – and her duties could be performed by a person with little or no education at all. All that, and the boss liked to use his hands in ways she couldn’t tolerate.

To make things worse, Mae is an only child, and her father suffers from a wasting disease and is gradually losing both his mind and his body. Her mother has gradually given up all of her interests, and spends her time either physically caring for her husband, or writing letters and making phone calls to insurance companies, threatening or pleading with them to help with the crushing costs of a minimal layer of care for the man. Both parents have urged Mae not to allow her father’s problems to hold her back in life, but she feels guilty that she doesn’t do more for them.

Mae is thrilled to learn that her new employer has excellent health insurance, not only for employees, but for their extended families. With the Circle’s health insurance, her father’s decline has slowed significantly, and her mother is happier and beginning to enjoy a bit of life for herself.

The Circle does business on a huge campus. Each tasteful building is named for a period of history. Mae is told from the beginning that she has only a starter’s job, and that as her talents are discovered, she will be appreciated and promoted. And, that turns out to be true.

Mae’s job involves customer service. If the circle’s subscribers encounter any trouble with their technological services, she advises them how to fix the problem, or forwards their request to someone with more training. At the end of each of her interactions with customers, the customer is asked to rate her performance, on a scale of 1-100. Her instructions are that if she gets anything lower than 100, she should re-contact the customer and ask how she could better serve them. When she does that, her score almost always goes up.

Included with Mae’s regular equipment at work is membership in organizations similar to Facebook and Twitter. Other employees send her what the book calls “Zings,” which congratulate her on what she told that last customer or recommend even better ways she could have assisted the person. Her lack of self-confidence is gradually worn away by the support and help she constantly receives.

Employees of the Circle are encouraged to partake of recreational activities on company time. In fact, Mae’s supervisor occasionally worries that she isn’t broadening her horizons by taking in a lecture, or interacting with her fellow employees for a game of croquet. Of course, since her employee ratings depend on how many customer inquiries she solves, Mae finds herself volunteering to stay later, or start work earlier, so the company is getting a full-time employee. To save her both time and money, she is encouraged to stay in one of the Circle’s dormitories, which has all the comforts of a major hotel. Someone even puts clothes in her closet which they think she might like, exactly in her sizes. Her computer evaluates the things she has stored on it, and recommends clubs and interest groups which she might join.

The company even has restaurants where employees may dine, in a wide range of styles: Mexican, Asian, French, Mediterranean, traditional American, Creole, and more. Of course, if she fails to try enough new experiences, or she overindulges in foods which are less than healthy, she is cautioned about it by the wristband with which she has been fitted, to keep her in the best of health. Soon she is losing weight, looking great in her new wardrobe, feeling energetic, and being promoted again and again.

Once, after a visit with her parents, Mae forgets something and drives back to their home, surprising them in an act of intimacy. Her parents are embarrassed, especially after they learn that the health aids Mae’s insurance has bought them are fitted with cameras and listening devices, “so the doctors can monitor and prevent any unhealthy situation.” Mae finds she has less and less in common with her friends from her old life, and even with her parents, whom she now finds stuffy and inflexible, and that she enjoys and feels better in the company of fellow employees of the Circle.

There are probably no big surprises in Eggers’ narrative. He’s showing how people get sucked into life under the control of people who think they know better than we do, what’s good for us. Sometimes Mae seems ridiculously gullible, although if you listen to the conversation of people around you, it can often amaze how people buy the hooey which is poured out by news networks and political organizations.

A great many people, for example, allow businesses to just send an electronic bill to their bank account, and to withdraw money, without their needing to check that the billing is appropriate and the amount is correct.

If the police find child pornography on our computers, or a selling of narcotics and receipt of large sums of money, or whatever, who will believe us when we say that wasn’t put there by us? The traps of comfort, convenience and affordability are leaving us all exposed to the possible meddling of others.

”The Circle” has 491 pages in hard bound edition, and is marked for sale at $27.95. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-385-35139-3.