Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be the most over-interpreted book ever written. First published in 1818, it’s a tale of the emerging 19th-century worries about death and grave robbing. Or maybe the book is a rejection of Faust—at least, a rejection of the way in which Goethe’s 1808 classic was understood in England: a tale of a heroic Enlightenment intellectual rising up above the ordinary rules of humanity.
As I write, the Black Hills are burning: over 70 square miles in the Legion Lake Fire, with a second fire starting at the French Creek horse camp and spreading through Wind Cave National Park toward the town of Buffalo Gap. For South Dakota’s national forest, the fire has proved devastating. But it’s just a blip when compared with the nearly 400 square miles now burning in California. The Thomas Fire, as it has been named, is already the fourth largest wildfire in California history, with a good chance to move up the rankings—and it follows the Tubbs Fire that blackened northern California and spread into the city of Santa Rosa at the end of October. The West, in other words, is a tinderbox, and this season the flames took hold.
You can watch it on YouTube: the moment when Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most talented snooker player in the world, proves a good enough sport to try out a virtual-reality pool game for a software developer in California. He puts on the projecting headset like an oversized diver’s mask with the lenses blacked out, the haptic hand controls imitating a pool cue, and he studies the arrangement of the balls. Then he leans down to line up the shot on the virtual pool table—and promptly falls flat on his face, because the table isn’t, you know, actually there to support him. “@#$%&*,” he curses, “that’s scary.”
History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the effect of ideas. Scientific knowledge may progress by abandoning its old notions and even forgetting them. But political knowledge—the interplay of regimes and policies and personalities—advances only while we recall the political arrangements of the past and what came of them. In the old adage of Dr. Johnson, humankind is far more often in need of being reminded than of being instructed.
Poor Buncombe County, North Carolina: home to Asheville, mountainous scenery, Vanderbilt’s robber-baron Biltmore mansion—and along the way, the origin of words for chicanery, flim-flam, and deception. Bunkum, bunk, debunk, the Bunco Squads that police forces used to have: We needed a word for the patter, the polished spiel, of confidence swindlers, and the old British cozenage and French fourberie just didn’t seem to have the oomph that Americans wanted. And so (by a strange path that begins with a bit of 19th-century political bombast), we borrowed Buncombe’s name.
It’s like, you know, hard to speak quickly and fluently. To patter on without fillers and pauses. Without ums and ahhs. The testimony of practiced speakers—from political orators to the folks who get up at meetings of Toastmasters International—is that these dribbled bits of linguistic grouting can be scrubbed from speech, if we put in the work to teach ourselves to avoid them.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wanted to matter. All that he did, good and bad, and all that he means for us now, looking back, follows from that strange ache deep in his psyche. It was not enough to be what he was: a Harvard historian and the son of a Harvard historian. It was not enough to be intelligent and well read. It was not enough to contemplate history. The goal, the need in him, was to influence events as they unfolded.
There’s a principle for evaluating new technology that receives less attention than it deserves. The principle might be phrased this way: The flagship is not the fleet. Which is to say, the best use of any new technology—the most striking and morally praiseworthy use, and the use for the sake of which we were urged to adopt something new—will rarely prove to be the most common use. Any technology distributed to a large number of people will quickly take on a life of its own, for good and for ill, as users turn the new technology toward the old ambitions, anxieties, and debaucheries of human nature.