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brb

brb has written 66 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.

Chronicles of Brazil

Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ‘emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.

Work and Structure

Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”

Who Owns Germany?

‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.

Crunch Time for Food Policy

How do we feed an ever growing world population in an environment of increasing scarcity? In their book ‘Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch: From Soup to Nuts’ (London: Routledge 2014), investment bankers Julie Hudson and Paul Donovan liken the current overuse of the environment to the over-borrowing that ultimately led to the credit crunch in the global financial markets in 2008/09. Yet, argues reviewer Heiko Fritz, this perspective is ultimately limiting, and says more about the mindset of those trained to look at the world’s problems through the lens of financial markets, than about the challenges of food policy under conditions of environmental degradation. This is why, ultimately, the authors converge on the misguided conclusion that, as Fritz summarizes their views, “the hunt for technical efficiency is the most pressing problem of global food production”.

Churchill’s Bomb

Graham Farmelo, known as a biographer of physicist Paul Dirac, in his new book, ‘Churchill’s Bomb’, argues for a reassessment of Churchill’s role in British science policy. While not a scientist himself, Churchill drew inspiration from the work of writers such as H.G. Wells, speculating as early as 1924 that a bomb could be made, “no bigger than an orange….with the explosive power of tons of cordite”. When the possibility of actually building an atomic bomb came within reach, however, Churchill made various moves that ensured Britain’s exclusion from the American-led project to build the bomb. While, on one interpretation, Churchill allowed himself to be “fobbed off” by an evasive U.S. President Roosevelt, a fuller picture, as Farmelo makes clear, needs to take into account the various parties — individual and institutional, political and scientific — involved. In what reviewer Martin Underwood considers “a clear, lucid manner”, Farmelo reconstructs “Churchill’s often confused views on The Bomb and possible deployment”.

Reputation and Disenchantment

In a world that is more and more connected by electronic and other social media, questions of reputation and its management become ever more important, even to individuals who previously would not have thought of themselves as being in the public limelight. A recent volume, ‘La Réputation’ (2013), edited by Gloria Origgi and published by the Centre Edgar-Morin, explores this topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. Composed of twelve articles, ranging from psychology and economics to philosophy and sociology, the volume aims at a ‘disenchantment’ of the elusive notion of reputation. As reviewer Thomas Mollanger notes, though the volume engages little with the extensive body of reputation research in the English-speaking world, it nonetheless succeeds in highlighting and analyzing the centrality of reputation to a range of social phenomena.

Unifying Historical Perspectives

Greg Frost-Arnold’s first book, ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’ (Open Court, Chicago 2013), has as its subject matter a manuscript by Rudolf Carnap that was recently discovered in the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives of Scientific Philosophy. The original German manuscript is about the conversations of Carnap, Tarski and Quine (sometimes featuring Goodman) which took place at Harvard in the academic year 1940-41. That year marks a decisive point in the evolution of Carnap’s thought on semantics (one year later, he published his Introduction to Semantics). As Carnap and Quine reported in their intellectual autobiography, the dispute about analyticity played a crucial role in that highly productive year. ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’, argues BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly, is a highly elegant edition and commentary of Carnap’s notes, claiming just as much as is warranted on the basis of the manuscript and other relevant texts. Its scholarly assumptions are carefully formulated and manage to unify three co-existing historiographical strategies: narrative, argumentative and micro-historical. The micro-history, in this case, consists in the conversations between Carnap, Tarski and Quine, yet the overall story fits with an emerging bigger narrative concerning the history of logical empiricism and analytic philosophy.

Democracy in Retreat?

Recent trends — from the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the U.S. to anti-election protests in Thailand — call into question the standard assumption that, as nations develop economically, they will necessarily become more democratic. In his book ‘Democracy in Retreat’, Joshua Kurlantzick describes what he sees as the revolts of the global middle classes, which have led to a worldwide decline of representative government. Writing from Bangkok only days before a highly contested national election, BRB reviewer Soraj Hongladarom calls for a ‘Fifth Wave’ of democratization, one which would offer the current disillusioned middle class an incentive to return to the fold of democracy.

On Jesting

“A man of great wit, and little acumen, or penetration, can never succeed in jesting. Such a man proves always intolerable, with his facetious conceits, to judicious persons. His jests are merely playing on words, or puns, or allegorical, metaphorical and tropical modes of speech, and the like kinds of wit, without applying them with any acumen or penetration: and in that case he must fall into the insipid. Without acumen, a man cannot possibly guard against false thoughts: and if in jesting he thinks without acumen, he overlooks the differences of objects, and in that case may easily, by a false conceit, represent to himself a coincidence in things which greatly differ.”