12 Days To Christmas: A Reading List

Sarah posted about some books she’s been reading- you can check out here post here. I’ve read some of the same ones, but I’ll avoid doubling up. You can read her post here.

The cool thing about just blatantly copying my sister is that I get to borrow her topic and format, which saves me quite a bit of mental energy. I will, however, take a slightly different tact with this post, I’m going to discuss five books that have impacted my way of thinking.


Orthodoxy- G.K. Chesterton (Amazon Link

Orthodoxy is one of the great Catholic apologetics of the 20th century, and Chesterton one of the most prolific, if underappreciated writers. He’s named as a primary influence by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis later in the 20th century. When reading Chesterton I have to resist the impulse to underline or highlight every other line, his style is eminently quotable, there is no doubt had he lived to see it, he would have had a very successful twitter account. Even if you are not interested in Christianity, Chesterton is still an incredibly enjoyable read, all of his writing is peppered with thought-provoking ideas and paradoxes.

My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

(Bonus Quote from Heretics) (Amazon Link)

It is true enough, of course, that a pungent happiness comes chiefly in certain passing moments; but it is not true that we should think of them as passing, or enjoy them simply “for those moments’ sake.” To do this is to rationalize the happiness, and therefore to destroy it. Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized. Suppose a man experiences a really splendid moment of pleasure. I do not mean something connected with a bit of enamel, I mean something with a violent happiness in it–an almost painful happiness. A man may have, for instance, a moment of ecstasy in first love, or a moment of victory in battle. The lover enjoys the moment, but precisely not for the moment’s sake. He enjoys it for the woman’s sake or his own sake. The warrior enjoys the moment, but not for the sake of the moment; he enjoys it for the sake of the flag. The cause which the flag stands for may be foolish and fleeting; the love may be calf-love, and last a week. But the patriot thinks of the flag as eternal; the lover thinks of his love as something that cannot end. These moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary. Once look at them as moments after Pater’s manner, and they become as cold as Pater and his style. Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant.


Tribe- Sebastian Junger (Amazon Link)

Sebastian Junger is a veteran war correspondent and wrote Tribe, which is I think is one of the most important books of the past couple years. Junger explores how modern society has bred a profound disconnect between members of American society, and how humans were not designed to live in extreme individualism. It’s a short read, less than 200 pages, and very well written, you should pick up a copy and read it today. This is, I think, one of the books that explain Trump. It’s not explicitly political, but then again neither is the Trump phenomenon.

Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.

That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half. There was a period during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 when a bumper sticker that read NO BLOOD FOR OIL started appearing on American cars. Implicit in the slogan was the assumption that the Iraq War was over oil, but the central irony of putting such a message on a machine that runs on oil seemed lost on most people.

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction— all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.


How to Be a Conservative- Roger Scruton (Amazon Link)

Despite the title, this book is not an ideological tract by a Fox News commentator. Roger Scruton is for my money one of the greatest living philosophers. I’m sure philosophy folks will argue with me about that- but that’s my view and I’m sticking to it. Scruton has made perhaps the greatest contribution to conservative political philosophy since Burke. How to Be a Conservative is a blistering defense of classically conservative principles. I think that in modern politics we are to a policy focused as opposed to principle focused. People do a lot of arguing about policies, and very rarely drill down to the principles underlying those policies. Scruton brings us back to the fundamental principles of conservatism. As an added bonus (and rarity in the field of political philosophy) he’s eminently readable, even funny in a dry British sort of way. Scruton and Chesterton are two of the larger influences on my political and religious development as an adult.

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.

Because of this rhetorical disadvantage, conservatives often present their case in the language of mourning. Lamentations can sweep everything before them, like the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in just the way that the literature of revolution sweeps away the world of our frail achievements. And mourning is sometimes necessary; without ‘the work of mourning’, as Freud described it, the heart cannot move on from the thing that is lost to the thing that will replace it. Nevertheless, the case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents. It is not about what we have lost, but about what we have retained, and how to hold on to it. Such is the case that I present in this book. I therefore end on a more personal note, with a valediction forbidding mourning.


On Thermonuclear War- Herman Kahn (Amazon Link)

Published in 1959- Reading OTW is like stepping into another world. One of the foundational texts on nuclear strategy, Kahn found himself living during the dawn of a new age- the nuclear age. Mankind had within its reach the power to destroy all life on earth, and nobody was quite sure how to utilize this new power. As Eisenhower said in ’56 “[T]he the United States is piling up armaments which it well knows will never provide for its ultimate safety. We are piling up these armaments because we do not know what else to do to provide for our security.”

OTW was one of the first serious attempts to devise a coherent nuclear strategy. Its 600 pages explore nearly every corner of the nuclear problem and act now as a sobering reminder of how close man was to an enormous cataclysm. Kahn also gives a warning which is still prescient today, against the type of lazy thinking which seems to prevail in many areas of the modern world. One only needs to replace “nuclear” with “terrorism” or “cyber” in some passages of OTW to recognize the same patterns of simultaneously hyperbolic and lackadaisical thinking on the part of politicians and policy makers.

I have a firm belief that unless we have more serious and sober thought on various facets of the strategic program than seems to be typical of most discussion today, both classified and unclassified, we are not going to reach the year 2000- and maybe not even the year 1965- without a cataclysm of some sort, and that this cataclysm will prove a lot more cataclysmic than it needs to be. It is with the hope of decreasing the probability of catastrophe and alleviating the consequences of thermonuclear war if it comes that I offer these pages to all with the interest- and the courage- to read them.


War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning- Chris Hedges (Amazon Link)

Chris Hedges is, like Junger, a war correspondent and spent much of his career in the Balkans during the 1990’s. The quote below I one of the most enduring from the book, and has haunted me ever since I read it. “The poison that is war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility.” This book is an enduring reminder that we, as the United States, as the leader of the Western World, bear a heavy burden. We do not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world- because when we do people die. Intervening- with force of arms if necessary- in humanitarian crises is our absolute duty and one we have neglected as of late. This book is especially important now, given the abject failure of the Obama administration in Syria & Libya, and our failure as the American people to demand action from our elected officials. That blood is on our hands because we did nothing. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is an enduring reminder of the possibility for the western world be a great power for good, or evil, in the world, and that the choice is ours.

The poison that is war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility. There are times when we must take this poison – just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live. We can not succumb to despair. Force is and I suspect always will be part of the human condition. There are times when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral.

We in the industrialized world bear responsibility for the world’s genocides because we had the power to intervene and did not. We stood by and watched the slaughter in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda where a million people died. The blood for the victims of Srebrenica- a designated UN safe area in Bosnia- is on our hands. The generation before mine watched, with much the same passivity, the genocides of Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and the Ukraine. These slaughters were, as in, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Chronical of a Death Foretold, often announced in advance

On Mice, Mules, and Swans

“No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word”

Wherever you are right now, look around yourself and consider.

“How did I end up here?”

“What choices let me to this point?”

Chances are, if you look back relatively recently there will be an act of chance, randomness, which sent you spiraling off in a new direction. The further you think back, the more events, little and big, you think of, these bits of randomness, will compound exponentially. You may come to the realization that your life as it stands today is less of a culmination of careful planning, and more of one big sick accident.

The first half of this semester represents the peak and trough of my own attempt to wrest control of where I was going from the hands of chance. I had never before in my life done such careful planning, and I had never before in my life watched such carefully laid plans, fall into such tiny pieces. There is a certain security in plans, to do lists, and deadlines, having a clear idea of where you are and where you are going. There is also a certain sickness unique to watching deadlines pass, to do lists left undone, and the very foundational assumptions that your plans were built upon crumble underneath you. To paraphrase the Scottish poem “The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry”[2]. But why? Why do plans fail and foundations crack, and why can’t we see it coming?

In noted science fiction series, The Foundation by the prolific writer Isaac Asimov, the universe is ruled by a scientific discipline called psychohistory[3], which is a combination of statistical reasoning and sociology by which psychohistorians are able to predict the future course of societies within very good margins of error. Since a universe where everything is predictable would make for a poor science fiction series, enter the Mule[4], an individual who represents the statistical error in the psychohistorian’s calculations. Even with their god like powers of prediction, Asimov’s psychohistorians are still at the mercy of chance. The emergence of one extraordinary individual changes the timeline in way’s unpredictable.

Mules are people who come into your life like a whirlwind, and have an effect that you never could have predicted. They are accidents, which come to in one way or another redefine your world. A Mule can be good or bad, or a mix of both, but whatever their effect on the trajectory of your life, it was unexpected, and unpredictable before it happened.

Noted Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writes of Black Swan Events[5]. A Black Swan, is an event which there is or was no real way to predict, has an extraordinary effect, and is often incorrectly rationalized in hindsight. Black Swans, like Asimov’s Mule, represent the far end of statistical chance. Taleb, like Asimov, focuses on the “big picture” the way chance pushes whole societies in one direction or another. On a macro-level, Black Swans are the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked World War I, the discovery of Penicillin which saved on the upwards of 100 million lives, or the invention of the internet, which would come to revolutionize the modern economy. However, I find a more compelling case for randomness to be found in looking at these Swans and Mules in the frame of the individual. In our lives Black Swans are events like the death of a friend, a robbery, or winning the lottery.

Black Swans and Mules, are the randomness inherent to the human condition. You go to a bar one night drinking, you’ve done this many times before, but tonight is different, you get in a fight outside the bar and get arrested. That is a Black Swan. You had no way of knowing that that would happen, based on all previous experience in bars, you expected to have a good time and wake up in bed. If you could go back in time and have decided not to go to that specific bar on that specific night, you almost certainly would. However, there was no way of knowing that that specific trip to a bar would have a radically different outcome from every other trip to the bar you’ve ever taken.

But let us also take the opposite proposition. You go to a bar one night drinking, you’ve done this a thousand times before, but tonight is different, you meet someone. Fast forward three months you’re happily dating, fast forward three years you’re married, fast forward three decades you’re happily retired. Had you not gone to that bar, on that night, you almost certainly never would have crossed paths with this person. You had no way of knowing that the choice of going there then, would ripple for decades, and effect every aspect of your life.

The reality is that every decision we make can be unwound like this. We never know when we will be hit by a bus, or meet someone who will change us forever. This is randomness. We make too many choices whose effects will ripple outwards in unpredictable ways to ever fully be in control. This realization can paralyze people accustomed to the allusion of control. The thought that by every action or inaction, we may be courting disaster or salvation, is, terrifying. Everything becomes a terrible mistake, or a missed opportunity.

In response to a loss of control to randomness, the religious and secular alike will often fall into the mental trap of “fate”. The idea that what happened or didn’t happen was fate, and would (or wouldn’t) have happened, in one way or another, regardless of choice. That even if you hadn’t gone to the bar that night, you would have met that person somewhere, sometime, if it was “meant to be”, it’ll be. Through the mechanism of fate, individuals remove the burden of choice from themselves, and place it in the hands of God, a muse, or some strange cosmic trajectory whereby things that are supposed to happen just happen.

People however are funny this way. Good things that happen are fate. Meet a pretty girl, get the promotion, win the lotto, that’s fate. That was meant to be, that would have happened come hell or high water, at one time or another. However, bad things, people often assume, are things of chance or choice. Car crash, bar fight, DUI, these are avoidable results of decisions by yourself, others, or a combination thereof. These events are your fault, someone else’s fault, or cosmic accident, but rarely will people call them fate.

Many will fall into self-blame, taking on their shoulders the entire responsibility of the effects of a given decision. The simple fact is, to get into a bar fight, there needs to be at least two people involved. While every individual choice can be unwound to show far reaching effects, every effect has more than one choice made by more than one person associated with it. For you to get into that bar fight, you needed to be in that bar, on that night, at that time, having drank exactly as much as you did, as did the other person. Yes, you could have prevented something bad from happening by breaking one link in that chain of choices, but so could someone else, so could the weather, so could any number of other people. The weight of the effect of randomness cannot be laid solely at your feet.

Humans are bad at being able to foresee the effects of our individual choices, let alone series of choices. Entering into the equation the choices of everyone else shows the pure randomness of the world we reside in. Black Swans are the product of an infinite number of choices made by disparate individuals, resulting in an effect, which could not have been foreseen. Mules are the product of individual personalities, with all their complexities and subtleties, combining and reacting in a way that cannot have been foreseen. The truth is, we are all a Mule to someone, and whether known or not, choices we have all made have contributed to someone’s Black Swan.

This is the part where I admit, I don’t have an answer. Are Mules and Black Swans a product of fate, chance, or choice? Are we being played for fools by a celestial puppet master or are we just helpless blind men in a world of too many unknowns?

I don’t know.

But what I think is this: we are masters of our own fate. Our day-to-day lives are ruled by randomness. We have no way of predicting how going to Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts for coffee, or being stuck in traffic for an extra five minutes, will cascade throughout our lives. Everyone can think back to a seemingly insignificant choice, which had far-reaching and unprecedented consequences. Worrying about the “coulda shoulda woulda” of mundane decisions will do nothing but drive us to madness. The way we react to randomness is what truly defines us. Similar decisions made consistently, deliberately, and repeatedly over the course of time will in the end mute randomness. In a world where plans fall apart and we are seemingly at the mercy of chance; resilience in the face of adversity is the ultimate virtue.

We are, in the end, the sum of the choices we make and the people who have touched us. A Mule or Black Swan can shift that total in one direction or another, but they cannot overcome the sheer mass of choices we make and interactions we have.


[1] Fooled By Randomness Nassim Nicholas Taleb
[2] To A Mouse Robert Burns
[3] Psychohistory
[4] The Mule
[5] Black Swan Theory