Books by Jon Ronson, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, and Hannah Arendt

Some more of the books I’ve been reading lately:

Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test
I loved this book. It helps if you are familiar with Ronson’s documentary work (hunt for some podcasts on-line) so that you can hear his narration in his nebbishy voice. The main topic of the book is the idea of a psychopath or sociopath — a person who has a defect in empathy or conscience that gives them extraordinary capabilities for deception and ruthless cruelty while at the same time leaving them without comprehension of what motivates most people or makes their lives worth living: a defect that in certain areas (politics, the corporate boardroom) can be a useful skill. Any intelligent discussion of this topic is liable to be interesting, but Ronson as usual displays his knack for finding the less-travelled paths in this field of inquiry and tells us the more bizarre, and sometimes for that reason more revealing, stories that might languish in the footnotes of a less-curious investigator’s book.
Joan Didion: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (collected nonfiction)
Having read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and Where I Was From before, I skipped those sections of the anthology and read the parts I hadn’t seen before. Joan Didion is a first-class writer and journalist, so much so that even reading today about the behind-the-scenes intrigues of a 25-year-old Los Angeles mayoral race remains gripping.

Her best journalistic virtue is not that she gets the scoop that nobody else gets, but that she reports the interesting things that all the reporters know but that they keep concealed because they would embarrass the reporters’ fraternity or they wouldn’t fit the formula or the reporters aren’t savvy enough to know that what interests them would also interest their readers if only they knew how to convey it. Not for her is “the genuflection toward ‘fairness’ ”

…a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal. …[W]hat “fairness” has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.

Didion doesn’t passively report “what was said” at the press conference, but how the press conference came about, how the reporters came to be there, what they said amongst themselves, the things they decided not to report. She has an eye for the telling moment, against those who are content to be an amplifying or distorting medium for the message, those who “prefer the theoretical to the observable, and [who] dismiss that which might be learned empirically as ‘anecdotal.’ ”

If she has a fault, it’s that the sophistication and ironic distance that give her the depth of field she needs to brutally criticize modern political campaigns or the bland hagiography of a Bob Woodward puts her out of her depth when she encounters a situation where earnest simplicity is more called for — something she noticed when she tried to cover the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s:

I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illustrate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a true noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.

Graham Greene: The Quiet American
A very good story, and heartbreakingly prescient about what the coming U.S. war on Vietnam was going to be (the book was published in ), and why.
Hannah Arendt: Crises of the Republic
I’m actually only half-way through this, having read the first two of the four essays that make up the book. The first, Lying in Politics mostly concerns the Pentagon Papers and what they revealed about with how much effort the U.S. Government’s executive branch lied to the legislature and to the citizens in order to better-pursue its war policy in Vietnam, and how the extent of these lies so governed the war policy that even though the policy-makers had access to the facts, they found themselves shaping their policy around the lies they were telling, resulting in the shame and disaster that was the Vietnam War. The second essay, Civil Disobedience is a kind of rambling meditation on how citizen consent is obtained or assumed in various political systems, how civil disobedience differs from conscientious objection or from ordinary lawbreaking, and whether the American experiment in government by the quasi-consent of the governed means that there is a different place for civil disobedience in its government — maybe one that could be made quasi-official. This essay was… interesting I suppose, but didn’t strike me as particularly astute.