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July 29, 2013


Lately I have been shying away from New York Times bestseller lists in favor of reading “old” books – but not really “old.” All have been published in the 20th century (though barely) and the 21st century. It is easier to classify old books because we have the benefit of hindsight; new books await the verdict of literary historians. Bestsellers are not necessarily good books; they are just books that sell based on tastes of the moment (like hula hoops, zombies, spy stories, adultery in the afternoon etc.).

I recently completed “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” published in 1902, by Albert Schweitzer, one of my top ten people in history. I had read it more than fifty years ago but needed a refresher in German theological rationalism, which the book provides in abundance. Schweitzer is one of few who have three earned doctorates, in theology, music and medicine. The world’s foremost interpreter of Bach on the organ at the time, he turned his back on millions to labor in a hospital he built in the African Congo. I rank him with Gandhi and other great idealists who live out their sacrificial idealism without complaint.

I have also recently completed “The Death of Artemio Cruz,” the Spanish version originally published in 1962, by Carlos Fuentes. I have never read Fuentes before and enjoyed reading his insights into Mexican revolutions, corruption, the death of his protagonist’s son fighting Franco in the Spanish Revolution, and other such stories against a background philosophy of impending death. Fuentes is a brilliant wordsmith as he describes gringo bribes and just who it is who profits from revolutions (hint – it’s not “the people”).

I am currently reading “Fast Food Nation,” published in 2002, by Eric Schlosser, and though a New York Times bestseller, I find the book so far to be one of substance devoid of shoot and chase and sex fluff of many on the Times’ bestseller list. From what I have read so far, its prophetic voice suggests that it could have been first published yesterday. We are paying far more as a society than the prices paid at the fast food windows in terms of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses.

Bringing publication dates nearer to today, I have read some but not enough of “The Squandering of America,” published in 2007, by Robert Kuttner, brilliant Keynesian economist. That is next on my list to be read, and I look forward to it. From what I have read to date, Kuttner is a prophet. This book was published the year BEFORE Wall Street brought us the Great Recession, yet discusses credit derivatives and their marketing as a cause of great concern. Nostradamus, move over!

Last but certainly not least on my reading list is “The Price of Inequality,” published in 2012, by Joseph Stiglitz, another brilliant Keynesian economist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. I have read some of it, but like Kuttner’s offering, I have been delayed by the intrusions of other reading opportunities afforded by Schweitzer, Fuentes and Schlosser. I hope to get through all of them shortly so that I can seek new adventures in reading. One of my new adventures in reading will be Upton Sinclair’s classic, “The Jungle,” published in 1906, which I am ashamed to admit I have never read since it is a book that transformed America (with the help of Teddy Roosevelt).

Nobody I know likes Hitler. During my teen-age years in WW II I myself would have cheerfully shot him if I had had the opportunity. I had no such opportunity since (so far as I know) he did not come to the South Pacific during the war.

It will shock readers to know that while Eisenhower didn’t like Hitler, he was nevertheless “enormously impressed” (per Schlosser) by Hitler’s Reichsautobahn, the world’s first superhighway system. Ike strongly pushed for passage of the Interstate Highway Act after becoming president, which passed and which became the largest public works project in the nation’s history, building 46,000 miles of road with $130 billion in federal money. The interstate highway system irrevocably transformed America, from suburbs and exurbs to drive-ins to strip malls to a boom in auto and truck sales.

$130 billion adjusted for inflation would be a daunting figure today, and one can only imagine how a perhaps trillion dollar public works program would fare in the tea party atmosphere of this day and age. It took a Republican to follow a fascist highway design and give America the infrastructure it needed to prosper; no Democrat could get away with then or now. It’s socialist, you know. Indeed (as reported by Schlosser), one historian at the time described the federal government’s 1950 highway-building binges as a case study in “interstate socialism.”

I was minimally involved in Ike’s interstate highway system myself. I was chosen as a special judge in a large Midwestern city where the plaintiff was resisting condemnation of his land for interstate right of way in the early 1960s. I heard the evidence, held against him, and the state supreme court unanimously upheld my decision on appeal. If there ever was a case of condemnation for “a public use,” this was it.

A New Haven case since then of a few years ago where the United States Supreme Court allowed condemnation for a “private use” on grounds that it would yield greater tax revenue went too far, in my opinion. Under such a rationale, if a MacDonald’s wants to build a store on a street corner where you live and if their siting there would yield greater tax revenue than what you pay, you are at risk of condemnation and removal from your own home. It seems to me that there are other intangible rights to home ownership than a yardstick of relative tax revenue to be considered. There is no appeal from the holding of the United States Supreme Court, but I think that finding is in error anyway.

I hope that books (old or new) do not become the new buggy whips of this digital age. Books have the space to flesh out insights and ideas that 10-second sound bites (bytes) cannot match, whether print or digital. Book-reading (whether print or digital) is an exercise in continuing education. I recommend it. GERALD  E

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One Comment
  1. If you want to read more current scholarship on the historical Jesus to coalesce with your reading of Albert Schweitzer I would suggest Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. They are my go-to scholars on virtually all of my teaching and proclamation. Always get benefit from reading your essays! Keep them coming!

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