1. Using a gift certificate from Chapter's, I bought Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up: a collection of non-fiction pieces.

Pretty high quality throughout. I like the story of Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Intel ("Two Young Men Who Went West"). More updated stuff on how computers have changed things, how wealthy the U.S. is (contrary to gloomy declarations by would-be Marxists), and the future of neuroscience (which might change our world more than computers have), all quite good.

Wolfe, describing the new with-it world, uses the expression "RIM pager." I'm surprised he didn't have the term "Blackberry," or in fact "Crackberry." It's the kind of thing he would have liked to have thought of.

His novella,. "Ambush at Fort Bragg," is relevant on a number of fronts. A TV news magazine team from New York heads out to an army base in the south to catch the murderers of a gay soldier on tape, admitting to their crime and giving some of the cultural, i.e. disgustingly backward, background. They get their tape, but when the bigoted young soldiers find out they've been taped, the brightest of them gives a speech about how it is the unit that counts, not the individual. You can't expect an individual to risk his own life, but the unit will sacrifice itself every day. Out gays risk the unity of the unit, and that's what intellectuals with no military background don't get.

The finished product on TV is distorted, false, in very specific ways. Yet for purposes of a news show going for ratings, it tells the truth.

2. Retrieved from my mother's house: Peter Quennell, Four Portraits. This is the kind of thing I'd like to write: fairly light literary/historical studies. Quennell does Boswell, Gibbon, Laurence Sterne and John Wilkes. The first three wrote literary works of considerable repute as well as popular success. Wilkes made a name for himself defending "the rights of Englishmen" against the government that was supported by George III.

These four were contemporaries, and each had some glory at roughly the same time, say the 1760s. Quennell gives off hints that the Victorian era was coming--more narrow morally, but no doubt capable of prodigies of its own. Boswell was an inveterate womanizer and party animal, who was drawn to Johnson partly because he needed a somewhat stern but loving father, which his own father had never really been. Johnson had genuine crises of Christian conscience; Boswell may have had paler versions of these.

Gibbon actually converted to Roman Catholicism as a teenager, and was immediately treated as an outcast by his family. He was sent to study with a Protestant minister in Switzerland, obviously in the hope that he would convert back, which he eventually did. In his magisterial history of the decline of Rome, he famously shows a kind of contempt for Christianity, and a suspicion that its influence was always harmful. In his personal life he was remarkably inexperienced, but not exactly innocent.

Sterne was an Anglican priest--as with Talleyrand, it was the only way offered him to make a living. He had richly emotional affairs with various women, but there is some doubt as to whether many of them, or any, were consummated. He may have introduced the word "sentimental" into the English language--no doubt influenced by Rousseau.

Wilkes was a complete reprobate, but he could charm anyone. Johnson disapproved of him on early meetings, but soon came to say "Jack is alright," and such.

Christianity is a presence for these men, but as Quennell says, the Anglican church in this time is extremely easy-going. When the Victorians toughened up morality they did so not so much with the support of Christianity, as despite the lack of belief in it--at least among intellectuals.

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