i listen to history books in my car

This post on Cool Tools changed my life. I drive more than I should. I drive to the barn two or three times a week. I drive the kids to swim class and piano class and summer camp. I used to suffer grievously from road rage, on account of California drivers zomg! But since I started listening to audiobooks while I drive, my driving has become serene and Zen.

As KK says in his Cool Tools post, fiction and history are ideal. Well, as those of you with even a fleeting acquaintance with me will have gleaned, reading enough fiction is not my problem. My problem may indeed be reading too much fiction. But history is harder. It’s hard to read history after a long day at work and with the kids, with your head heavy on the pillow. I thought I’d test-drive audio books with some history I had tried and failed to get through in print. That’s how I managed to race through Georgiana and, even more dauntingly, Paris 1919. I got both from the San Francisco public library, on CASSETTE TAPES HOW STEAMPUNK. Then I had a vicious slapfight with the SFPL’s bitterly disappointing audiobook reserves (foul proprietary software with almost nothing available for Android.)

So I signed up for Audible and listened to Bloodlands and Postwar streaming off my phone. They are both beautifully read by Ralph Cosham, who sounds almost exactly like Kerr Avon. Which was odd, but compelling. The books are twins in so many other ways that I suspected Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt of knowing one another’s work even before I Googled them to learn how intimately they were connected. Both books consider Eastern and Western Europe as parts of a whole. Bloodlands considers state-sponsored mass killing by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as two distinct expressions of a single totalitarian impulse. Postwar examines the aftermath. I was very lucky with the order in which I tackled them. Bloodlands picks up where Paris 1919 leaves off, and Postwar does the same for Bloodlands.

Postwar is one of the best and wisest and most useful books I have ever read in my life, and I am a Judtist now. I’ve been praising it as the missing manual for the world in which I grew up, but it’s more than that. Judt – a reformed Marxist – takes pains to distinguish between Soviet communism, which succumbed to its genocidal totalitarian impulses, and Scandinavian-style social democracy, which didn’t. He is also clear-eyed yet hopeful on Europe itself as a model for organizing human beings that is neither coercive in the Chinese model or cynical and corrupt in the American way. Judt, who died of ALS last year, would not have been the least bit surprised about Greece and Portugal and the peril in which the Euro finds itself: he read the writing on the wall. But in spite of much of the evidence of his own eyes he argues for the continuing usefulness and relevance of social contracts that don’t inherently fuck people over, or arrange to have them killed. So that’s nice.

By contrast, my latest project is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. It’s a history of Al Qaeda, beginning in aftermath of World War Two. Narrator Alan Sklar is no Ralph Cosham, and until I cast him in my mind as my friend Bob Foster the genius Koreanist from Michigan, his flat Midwestern vowels seemed set to drive me up the wall. I am glad I persisted, because The Looming Tower is an Iain Banks Culture novel, with the West standing in for the Culture. Specifically, it is Consider Phlebas, because it concerns itself with the point of view of the enemies of the Culture.

The big question of the last century appears to be: “Why do you want me dead?”, for various values of “you” and “me”. All the answers are depressing. The Looming Tower follows Sayyid Qutb, the father of Islamism, as he studies education in Greeley, Colorado: founded as a Western utopia. Qutb is so horrified by people tending their gardens and women talking about free love that he turns against America altogether. It is as compelling and awful as a car accident. As Jeremy remarked: “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

The more I read history the more I hope to stay as far the fuck away from it as I possibly can.

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