What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

The Iraq War, by John Keegan. I recently read Keegan’s take on the Civil War, and decided to read his book on the Iraq War as well. It’s a rare thing, to read a history about an event that you lived through not long ago. But I suspected that Keegan’s wry commentary on events in Iraq from 1991-2003 might give me a more comprehensive understanding of what happened. As with Keegan’s other books, the book excels in providing background of what led up to the war, from the history of the Muslim caliphate to the Ottoman empire to Hussein’s rise to power. And then the book details the awe-inspiring and historically unparalleled efficiency of the US military machine, and then the sheer folly of the US plan to build a government after the fall of the regime.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to describe Keegan’s depiction of the war as unbiased, it was a refreshing contrast to the vitriolic editorializing that characterized most commentary I read while the war was happening. I’m glad I read it.

Impro, by Keith Johnstone. This came very highly recommended by Kevin Simler of Melting Asphalt. The book is ostensibly about improv comedy, but generally instructive on human-on-human interactions. The chapter on “status” is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. Johnstone forces his actors to think of all interactions between people as “status” transactions, wherein at all moments an actor must adopt a high-status or a low-status position. Indeed, it is this act of asserting power or acting submissive that is the very thing that makes the actors’ actions feel real. The implication is that at all times, we are either asserting ourselves or allowing ourselves to go along with someone else’s plan, and this dynamic is what defines our roles as people. It’s a rare book that can make you re-think every interaction with other people, but this one did.

Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. This was a fun and easy collection of essays from Bradbury about his love of writing. Similar in many ways to Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. “Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.”

The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles. In 2016, the story of the entrepreneur is well known and well told. This book describes the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man from modest beginnings who rose to become the wealthiest man in the United States. What makes the story unique is that Vanderbilt may have been the first such man to follow this trajectory. And his story fits snugly with the growth of the United States. Born in 1794, shortly after the adoption of the United States constitution, Vanderbilt epitomized a new merchant class that thrived through shrewdness, aggression, and dedication rather than title and education. Though only a couple of steps above illiteracy, his actions drove policy and shaped the development of the country as few others before or since had been able to do. The first half of the 19th century is an under-reported time in this country’s history. This book helped provide some color for that time.