Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

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Powers of Three: On the Tricolonic Title

Various explanations could be offered for the runaway success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. One could note its deft blend of personal recovery narrative with the pleasures of travel literature; its post-New Age grappling with spiritual questions; and its feel-good empowerment message for divorced first-worlders. But a more technical detail should not be overlooked: namely, the book’s perfect deployment of the tripartite title form.

Eat, Pray, Love is a classic instance of the rhetorical figure of the isocolon, first defined by the Greek sophist Georgias — along with other such figures, some familiar (antithesis), some now less so (homoeoteleuton) — as part of his system of rhetorical composition. Greek for “of equal number of clauses,” isocolon is a rhetorical device that produces a sense of order by balancing parallel elements that are similar in structure and length within a sentence. An isocolon need not have three elements, but the requirement of parallel and balance means that it often takes a tripartite shape, technically called a tricolon. The most famous examples of tricolons are probably “veni, vidi, vici,” from Julius Caesar’s letter to the Roman Senate after achieving a quick victory in the Battle of Zela in 46 B.C., and the national motto of France, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Caesar’s statement produces a sense of inevitable progress, and Eat, Pray, Love also achieves some of this effect, with Elizabeth Gilbert in the triumphant Caesar role: I ate, I prayed, I found love. And with Italy, India and Indonesia in the subtitle, Gilbert achieved tricolonic apotheosis.

The tricolonic title form has long been a staple of pop songs — “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” (Stevie Wonder); “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly); “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” (Journey) — and of movies: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; Sex, Lies, and Videotape. (A strict definition of the isocolon would exclude the latter as imbalanced, but Mark Forsyth opines in The Elements of Eloquence that “tricolons sound great if the third thing is longer,” as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). The human mind obviously enjoys lists, and the well-deployed tricolonic title can constitute a powerfully compressed narrative that raises questions only answerable by consuming the cultural object in question. What do the sex and lies have to do with the videotape? Do squeezin’ and touchin’ require lovin’, or are all three actions independent of one another?

One classic version of the tricolonic book title takes the form of a brief list of names, as in Jacques Barzun’s 1941 Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, or Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In these instances, what may appear to be simple lists in fact offer a hint of irony or paradox in a less-than-obvious grouping: a question is raised (what does Johann Sebastian Bach have to do with the other two?) that the book will go on to answer.

But a new kind of tricolonic title emerged in the 1970s, I would suggest, as a signature form of the new discourse of Theory. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida both made notable use of the tricolon: see Barthes’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976) and Image, Music, Text (1977), and Derrida’s landmark post-structuralist essay “Signature Event Context” (1972). Michel Foucault’s 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France, later collected in book form as Security, Territory, Population, also offer a paradigmatic example. The title was probably not Foucault’s own, as the book was published posthumously in 2004 — which in itself proves the point, however, that by the 21st century, this title form had become a marketing hook.

I would guess that the primary influence on Barthes and Derrida’s titles were the titles of Martin Heidegger: The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (1938); his 1951 essay “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”); his 1971 collection Poetry, Language, Thought. (As with Foucault, some of these titles may not have been chosen by Heidegger himself). This Heideggerian, Barthesian, or Derridean tripartitle title form declines to pre-order its terms, offering them as a kind of puzzle for the reader. “Signature, Event, and Context” would, like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, more straight-forwardly suggest a linear sequence of important terms for the argument within the essay; “Signature Event Context,” however, compels attention by offering a gnomic, comparatively unmarked collection of terms. (The lack of commas intensifies this effect.) The title flaunts a certain blankness or withholding of affect, and enacts a cool decontextualizing, demanding that we abandon whatever associations we might already hold with its three terms “signature,” “event,” and “context,” in order to comprehend them more rigorously and dispassionately.

Once one takes note of this kind of tricolonic title form, one starts to see it everywhere in the titles of scholarly books and articles, especially in the 21st century. Robin Wood’s “Ideology, Genre, Auteur: Shadow of a Doubt” and “Symmetry, Closure, Disruption: the Ambiguity of Blackmail,” both from Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989); Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (2004); David Punter’s Rapture: Literature, Addiction, Secrecy (2009); Valerie Rohy’s Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality (2010); Jesse Molesworth’s Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Realism, Probability, Magic (2010); Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (2015). (And the prevalence of the tricolonic title offers an opportunity for a perhaps-inevitable form of one-upmanship, the tetracolonic title, as in Caroline Levine’s new Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.) The undifferentiated tricolonic (or tertracolonic) title — especially lacking the “and” — now often implies an allegiance to Theory, a disinclination to pre-sort the terms of one’s argument, and a certain affectual withholding. The titles seem to say, offhandedly, “Here are some of the key terms of my argument; I won’t explain yet how they relate to one another.” I am not sure whether it should be seen as a coincidence, or a deeper-running irony of late capitalism, that such titles also serve as convenient collections of search terms, well-poised to capture online queries.

All of this leaves one question, difficult to answer definitively: should Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” now be recognized as containing an overlooked Heideggerian resonance?

Bad Bookshops: An Appreciation

Cultural anxieties are currently running high about the future of the book as a physical object, and about the immediate prospects for survival of actual brick and mortar booksellers. When most people think about the (by now very real) possibility of the retail side of the book business disappearing entirely into the online ether, they mostly tend to focus on the idea of their favorite bookshops shutting their doors for the last time. Sub-Borgesian bibliomaniac that I am (or, if you prefer, pathetic nerd), I have a mental image of the perfect bookshop that I hold in my mind. It’s a sort of Platonic ideal of the retail environment, a perfect confluence of impeccable curation and expansive selection, artfully cluttered and with the kind of quietly hospitable ambiance that makes the passage of time seem irrelevant once you start in on browsing the shelves. For me, the actual place that comes closest to embodying this ideal is the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, run by the people behind the London Review of Books. It’s a beautifully laid-out space in a beautiful building, and its selection of books makes it feel less like an actual shop than the personal library of some extremely wealthy and exceptionally well-read individual. It’s the kind of place, in other words, where you don’t so much want to buy half the books in the shop as buy the shop itself, move in straight away and start living in it. The notion that places like this might no longer exist in a decade or so is depressing beyond measure.

But I don’t live in Bloomsbury, or anywhere near it. I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It’s flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence. It’s one of those places that makes you wonder how it manages to survive at all. It has a rack of greeting cards, carries a small selection of stationery sundries, and its “Mind, Body and Soul” section — mostly books on stuff like dream interpretation and angel husbandry — is slightly larger than its Classics section, which is really just a couple of desultory shelves with a few Dickenses and Austens and maybe a Brontë or two. It’s not a good bookshop, in other words. It is, in fact, a pretty terrible bookshop.

But I have an odd fondness for it anyway, and I’ll occasionally just wander up there in order to get out of the apartment, or to see whether, through some fluke convergence of whim and circumstance, they have something I might actually want to buy. I’ve often bought books there that I would never have thought to pick up in a better bookshop, gravitating toward them purely by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing else remotely interesting to be had. I bought a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel there, for instance, a book I would probably not have thought to look for in a larger, more lavishly stocked place. I also found, in the aforementioned “Mind, Body and Soul” section a few years ago, a copy of the philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man, slotted between How to Hear Your Angels and How to See Your Angels. I bought it because it was a work of serious philosophy on an interesting topic, surrounded on all sides by dewy-eyed spiritualist nonsense and self-help snake oil. I think I may have felt a little sorry for it, having to keep such poor company, and felt morally obligated to give it a proper home. It’s a fascinating book which has had a lasting influence on the way I think about the relationship between humanity and nature, and chances are I wouldn’t have read it if I lived within walking distance of Bloomsbury. I’ve also bought a few novels there which, being classics that pretty much every bookshop in the world has copies of, probably would not have caught my eye elsewhere. If you’re a compulsive book buyer, in other words, and there’s nothing worth looking at except a ropey-looking paperback of Madame Bovary, you might end up realizing that it’s completely unacceptable that you’ve never read it, and you might then take it with you to the counter and onward toward a future in which you’re slightly better read.

And this brings me to the point I want to make about bad bookshops, which is that they’re rarely actually as bad as they seem. In a narrow and counterintuitive sense, they’re sometimes better than good bookshops. The way I see it, there are three basic categories of retail bookseller. There’s the vast warehouse that has absolutely everything you could possibly think of (Strand Bookstore in New York’s East Village, for instance, is a fairly extreme representative of this group, or at least it was the last time I was there ten years ago). Then there’s the “boutique” bookshop, where you get a sense of a strong curatorial presence behind the scenes, and which seems to cater for some aspirational ideal of your better intellectual self. The London Review Bookshop is, for me at least, the ultimate instance of this. And then there’s the third — and by far the largest — category, which is the rubbish bookshop. There are lots of subgenii to this grouping. The suburban shopping center fiasco, as discussed above. The chain outlet crammed with celebrity biographies and supernatural teen romances. The opportunistic fly-by-night operation that takes advantage of some short-term lease opening to sell off a random selection of remaindered titles at low prices before shutting down and moving elsewhere. And, of course, the airport bookshop of last resort.

I have a slightly perverse fondness for these sub-par emporia, because they have often been the places where I have been forced to stray furthest outside of my usual buying patterns. Sometimes the situation in which our options are most narrowed is the one which ends up most widening our horizons. As great as it is to be able to choose whatever you want on Amazon, sometimes what you really want is to have no choice at all. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that maybe there is really no such thing as a bad bookshop.

Image Credit: Suzy Hazelwood.

A Year in Reading by Patrick Brown

Best Novel: The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen – Hugo Whittier is a 40-year-old misanthrope living in self-imposed exile at Waverly, his ancestral home on the Hudson River. Hugo is rapidly smoking himself to death, but doing it with real style. When his estranged brother separates from his wife and moves in, he drags Hugo kicking and screaming back into the company of other human beings. Will he ruin Hugo’s plan to smoke himself out of existence? This book is full of dark humor and wry observations on the loneliness, isolation, and mortality. Also, Hugo is a mean cook and gives one heck of a recipe for Holiday Sauce. I stumbled upon this book through a magazine article about Ms. Christensen, and I’m very happy I did.Runners Up (Fiction): East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (If I’m truly honest with myself, this was probably number one, but Edan already picked it, so that would be no fun. Plus, it’s not like Steinbeck needs more heat.)The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe History of Love by Nicole KraussI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek (So sentimental, but so, so good. The best story collection I read this year.)Best Non-Fiction: The Power Broker by Robert Caro – Next year will mark the first time in 3 years that I will have a non-Caro title as best non-fiction of the year. Unless, of course, he cranks out that fourth Lyndon Johnson book in record time. The Power Broker is impressive in its scale, its depth, and its incredible sense of drama. It’s Caro’s second best book (behind The Means of Ascent, Vol 2 of the Lyndon Johnson years), and worth every freakin hour it takes to read it. (As a bonus, if you don’t like reading it, you can use it to tone your biceps and triceps…).Runners Up (Non-fiction):A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha PowerGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

National Geographic’s Africa issue

I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.

Ask a Book Question: The 34th in a Series (Literary Science)

Brian sent me an email asking if we could recommend some books:I’ve been wanting to read some science books lately, anything from pop-science Oliver Sacks type stuff, to the more esoteric… from astronomy to geology to bird-watching to physics, etc… I just don’t know where to start. You have any suggestions?Oliver Sacks is a good author to start with, but there are a lot of other readable science books out there. One of my favorites is Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, which shows how the earth’s geography can explain why civilizations arose where they did. Diamond’s brand new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is getting good reviews, too. John McPhee also has some books that might work for you. Annals of the Former World is a 700 page layman’s guide to the geology of the United States and The Control of Nature is a collection of essays about man’s attempts to tame and make use of natural resources. Brian Greene’s bestseller about string theory, The Elegant Universe rather painlessly delivers complex physics, and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire explains how plants have evolved to use us as much as we use them creating a counter-intuitive symbiotic relationship. Beyond those you can’t go wrong with Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Edward O. Wilson. If please anyone else has suggestions, leave a comment.

It’s a good thing I’m broke or I’d probably be in Vegas right now

For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.

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