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.
A modest thought, a gentle faith, a quiet cultivation: There is a line of modern thought that seems to slip from view every other generation, only to reappear here and there among the in-between cohorts. The English cleric Sydney Smith (1771–1845) was of this kind, and perhaps his only generally remembered line is the maxim, “Take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God.”
In Hot Springs, South Dakota, there’s a museum—the Pioneer Museum, Where the Past is Present!—occupying the town’s original red-rock schoolhouse high on a hill overlooking the canyon in the southern Black Hills. And it’s a fine little place, with old washing machines, wood cook stoves, and kerosene lamps. Old furniture, hand-crafted carpenter’s tools, and pot-bellied stoves. The glass liniment bottles and steel instruments of a pioneer-era doctor’s office. The paper packets and ribbon spools of an old general store.
I once asked the novelist and Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny why the Catholic renaissance of mid-century America collapsed so suddenly. It was almost as though the fiction of John O’Hara and the prose of Thomas Merton had opened a floodgate, and a stream of Catholic works poured across the nation. The early poetry of Robert Lowell, that surprising first novel from Walker Percy, anything by Flannery O’Connor, the stories of J.F. Powers: From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Catholic writers writing on Catholic themes seemed to occupy a vital place in the literary culture of the United States.
Almost no commentator, no reviewer, has mentioned the most newsworthy fact about Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir—which is the near total lack of anything actually newsworthy in the book. With What Happened, Clinton would at last “let down her hair,” Simon & Schuster’s publicists loudly proclaimed before the book’s publication. And that was the line dutifully repeated by reporter after reporter, as though it were a fact. As though, coming from Clinton’s people, it didn’t need to be checked or reported with even the slight distancing of “Hillary Clinton says she’s let down her hair in her new book.”
It’s tempting to mock Richard Florida: the hipster urbanist with the hipster name, the new day’s heir to yesterday’s Jane Jacobs. In 2002, he wrote a book that just everyone with an ounce of hipness bought and read—a book about how hipsters were saving the nation’s cities. And now, 15 years older and not quite as hip anymore, he’s written a follow-up that says, in essence, whoops.
There’s a French word, frisson, that expresses something for which we don’t quite have a single word in English. Thrill, excitement, shiver, tingle: none of the common translations fully deliver the French sense of being captured, fascinated, by the presence of something—as in the medical sense of the word, the involuntary contraction of the skin in goosebumps that causes the hair on our arms to stand on end.
It’s a surprisingly melancholy thing, the reading of children’s books as an adult. Maybe even the reading of children’s books as a child, given how sad those books often turn. Remember Charlotte’s Web, as young Wilbur the pig watches his spider friend Charlotte die? But to the ordinary sorrows of the world, the adult brings as well an awareness of the fading of childhood: mourning tinged with the self-consciousness of self-loss. Or, as Bruce Handy tells the reader of Wild Things, his new set of personal ruminations about children’s literature, “you are holding in your hands a work of sublimated grief.”
Back in 1986, Laura Shapiro published Perfection Salad, a study of culinary history that was simultaneously an enduring classic and an evanescent artifact of its time. For those too young to remember, those were the days of American feminism on a triumphal march through scholarship, with historical writing increasingly demanded to be a tale of the oppression of women. But those were also the days of a new critique of the Enlightenment, some of it born from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue and the rest derived from Michel Foucault’s 1975 Discipline and Punish.