David Dayen, Chain of Title: A bit too inside baseball deep dive into the people who unintentionally became activists and exposed huge documentation fraud in mortgage servicing and foreclosure. Perhaps most interesting as a portrait of people whose mission consumes their lives, and then—despite a few individual victories—nothing really changes. Nobody truly responsible for the fraud or benefited by it goes to jail, though a few low-level people get some punishment. What happens to a dream deferred? Here, it gets foreclosed upon.
Thomas Levenson, The Hunt for Vulcan: Before Einstein showed that Newtonian physics needed some improvement to correspond with reality, astronomers used Newton’s laws to calculate, from observations of planetary orbits, that there were other planets out there. They were right about Neptune—a triumph of mathematical prediction—but the difference between the observed orbit of Venus and what Newton’s laws predicted led many to believe that there was another undiscovered planet, Vulcan, in between Mercury and the Sun. Levenson traces the history of the search for this planet and then engagingly and clearly explains how Einstein used general relativity to explain Mercury’s orbit and show that no such planet existed.
Merrill Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind: Jefferson has proved enduringly protean, available to represent a variety of positions, and his reputation is on a seesaw with Hamilton’s. Notably, this 1960 work was reissued in 1998; all things considered, I bet Peterson really wishes he’d waited one more year before writing in his introduction to the reissue that the Sally Hemings connection was a “slander” and not “credible.” (As with most of the historians whose accounts he canvasses, Peterson can’t help picking a side, in this case pro-Jefferson.) He attributes the survival of the legend to the hatred of Federalists and their sons, as well as the desire of African-Americans for connection to the great man and the legacy of abolitionist claims about slaveowners’ abuse of slaves. Although he recounts James Hemings’ testimony, he just doesn’t think Jefferson was that kind of man—which really, really foregrounds the question of what ‘that kind of man’ is like, because there’s no explanation of which of Jefferson’s public characteristics supposedly were inconsistent with having children with Hemings. One could, in theory, take his claims of disgust at race-mixing in Notes on the State of Virginia at face value, but Peterson doesn’t say that’s the reason.
More generally, Peterson examines how Jefferson was appealed to by Democrats and Republicans both, including how his populism/states’ rights positions were used in the lead-up to the Civil War and as a justification for the New Deal. Given Jefferson’s focus on limited government, this last required a change in levels of generality: Jefferson was for maximizing individual freedom, and, given the change in economic realities and the increased power of private entities to constrain freedom, a more active government was required to do what a limited government in the past did for the people. The overall ideal, not the principles, of Jefferson were all that survived by the time Roosevelt christened his monument: it was the “disintegration” of the Jeffersonian philosophy of government that heralded his canonization. Ultimately, Jefferson’s eloquence on the ideals of freedom and Americans’ desire for a tradition to appeal to sustained him in myth, memory, and legend.
Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: We’re often tempted to cram, but that’s an ineffective strategy for true learning, which requires interrupted/varied practice and things like quick quizzes or flashcards—effortful retrieval and the process of putting concepts into our own words enhance learning, even if they feel less helpful than rereading the material or “mass practice” (solving a bunch of the same type of problems at once). Repetition alone increases the feeling of knowledge, but not the reality—I was charmed by the example of trying to figure out which of various images is the real image of a penny (google “penny test”). You’ve seen it zillions of times, but that doesn’t mean you know it. People resist this conclusion because they feel like repetition and “massed practice” helps, but the studies consistently show it doesn’t. That sense of struggle that comes from delayed/interleaved practice is actually a sign of enhanced learning. The authors advocate low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; I’m still thinking about how to implement low-stakes quizzing in a larger classroom. (I have to confess that I did very little of my own studying using the recommended techniques, at least consciously. I usually relied on raw processing power, though I did take a lot of notes and I do believe that writing stuff down in your own words is a great way to learn the concepts better.) I loved the authors’ analogy between beginning learning and a bad first draft, since I’m a huge believer in forcing oneself to produce a bad first draft as a way to get to the good final draft.
Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape: Depressing and scary; Orenstein focuses on college-bound girls, a demographic close to my own heart, and finds that they don’t have a good vocabulary for figuring out what they want or a solid understanding that they have the right to enjoy sexual encounters. For the ones who have sex with young men, giving blowjobs is standard and even a way to keep emotional distance, as well as a way to avoid intercourse, but reciprocity is rare. At the end, Orenstein talks about how to teach girls that they deserve pleasure, and suggests that practicing scenarios—or even just figuring out in advance what you want and don’t want, and how you will say no and yes—can help them avoid regrets, even though they won’t necessarily avoid broken hearts. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention alcohol, because Orenstein emphasizes how girls can use alcohol to navigate the highly culturally policed line between slut (wanted to have sex sober!) and prude (doesn’t want sex at all!) in ways that are harmful and leave them more vulnerable to coercion.
Gregory Woods, Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World: Free early reviewer copy. This book is very hard to classify. It’s a gossipy, tidbit-strewn account of how gay, bisexual, and lesbian people influenced culture, and each other, across Europe and Russia and with a few jaunts to the US and the Mediterranean, from roughly Oscar Wilde’s time through about the 1960s. Mostly the book focuses on literary works and painting/sculpture, with a bit of film. Woods argues that gays and lesbians (the only categories widely recognized during most of the relevant period, though often under other names) were in fact more likely to have international links and commitments than heterosexuals, in part because, for example, Oscar Wilde was the only public figure they knew to identify with. Also, they were more likely to feel they needed to flee where they were.
Though heterosexual authors sometimes alleged that there was a homosexual conspiracy to promote fellow gay authors, Woods deems the “Homintern” a means of self-protection and only noticeable because it wasn’t the promotion of like-minded souls considered perfectly acceptable for heterosexuals (for which read heterosexual men—when Woods compares dedicating a book to a same-sex lover to dedicating a book to an opposite-sex spouse, it’s hard not to notice that, during this period, it was relatively rare for a wife to have the same kind of career as her husband, or to be helpful to him in it in the way that an oft-published fellow writer could be). Homosexuals’ cosmopolitanism was sexy and modern between the wars, then dangerous and corrupt—as Woods points out, this internationalism/urbanism was also associated with Jews, and Jewish homosexuals played a particularly large role in U.S. popular culture of the 20th century. Condemnation of the “gay mafia” in theater/fashion/etc., Woods argues, reflects homophobia rather than an understandable reaction to overrepresentation; as he points out, though you can list lots of culturally influential gays and lesbians, for every one of them “it is possible to name ten or so (presumed) heterosexuals in equivalent positions of cultural power.”
When homosexuality had to be concealed, the closet became both “compulsory and blameworthy,” a sign of untrustworthiness. In the period after Wilde’s conviction, homophobia and criticism of art were mutually reinforcing: people claimed that what was wrong with homosexuality was that “it tended towards the soppily arty, the morbidly affected and the frivolous,” and that what was wrong with art was that it was too gay. Italians called homosexuality “oscarwildismo” or “wildismo” and the French used “Dorian Gray” to mean gay. Later, homosexuality was blamed both for Nazism and for the lax morality of Weimar Berlin that supposedly led to the Nazis. (Edward Albee writing about a Berlin bar with wrestling matches in which the winner supposedly went to the highest bidder sounds straight out of fanfic to me, but sure, why not?) Woods spares some time for George Orwell’s homophobia (and Eric Blair’s brief gay phase at Oxford), and for Dylan Thomas’s.
As for gays in Hollywood, Woods argues that they were often privately open but only if they played along in public: the “consistently hostile representations of homosexuality for most of the twentieth century show that the considerable collective power so many individuals had was ceded to them under strict conditions.” The “presumed homophobia” of the mass audience still constrains Hollywood, in Woods’ view. The slowly developing image of a “good,” discreet homosexual (almost always a man, of course) was one response to homophobia, an attempt to appease it that also kept homosexuality secretive and therefore potentially threatening. This idea of discretion was misleading because reports of people who were persecuted and even prosecuted for being homosexual always indicated that they’d been “indiscreet”; people who hadn’t yet been found out thought that if they behaved, they’d be fine, not realizing that if they were caught, their “story would be told in such a way, by reporters and prosecutors alike, that [they] would appear indiscreet even to other homosexuals.” I was interested in the kind of double consciousness Woods described, in which many gay men who chose to live as gay men “did so both in the full knowledge of the fact that they could be prosecuted and yet in the hope—the necessary hope—that they would not be.”
Woods also spends some time on the reaction of older, mostly literary, gays and lesbians to the LGBT+ civil rights movement in the 60s-80s—a lot of “get offa my lawn” and “you’re making too big a deal of this,” sadly. In 1988, Alec Guiness worried that Ian McKellen and his ilk would create a “horrid backlash.” “They had not struggled quietly for so many years (those of them who had) for a bunch of hairy hippies to take up the freedoms the new legal situation had handed them and thereby, by association, brand all homosexual men as hedonistic weirdos.” Proving once again that the narcisissm of small differences is transcultural, Woods says that a lot of their discomfort focused on the term “gay.” Lesbians had their own struggles—first versus second-wave feminism, separatism versus integration, and so on. Interestingly, Woods also argues that, while earlier generations took models from classical Greece or ideas about Greece, the newer generations were “engaging with what they could garner from cinema.”
Also: Woods says that John Sutherland was speaking about W.H. Auden’s attitude towards rent boys in the line “one paid them not for sex, but to go away after sex,” which is an attribution I hadn’t seen before.