Friday, August 18, 2017

Pence the Reactionary

Mike Pence for President?

   I have been writing a lot about President Donald Trump and  hope in future to be able to reduce my comments about that erratic, uninformed nut. In multiple ways, he is unique in the story of America; even I know enough history to assert that. So my thoughts have been, get rid of the nut—somehow.
   But I have changed my mind. Better near-chaos than the wrong kind of order. Remember that order is not what Hitler’s Germany lacked.
  Mike Pence (Michael Richard was the name his parents gave him) is an unalloyed reactionary on any issue you might look at; I’ll let you check that out.

   Pence  would become president. Worse, he would be in tune—or they with him—with Republican members of Congress who call themselves conservatives. Many of them are not that, but reactionaries. But that term has essentially been dropped from use. A pity, because a big difference is being ignored. Conclusion: better a nut than a sane unalloyed reactionary.  I cross my fingers when I say all that. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Decline of Trump?

   This is an expression of an intuition,  with all the hazards pertaining thereto. Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville “unrest”* will be a turning point in his career. No longer will his supporters be able to point unambiguously to the views, however eccentric, of an oddball president. He waffled (how did this baked good get into such bad company?)  It’s not that he has changed his mind; rather that he has come out about the fuzz that is in his mind. Yes, Trump is the president. But that calls only for my attention, but not, unfortunately, for my respect.
   I am not the only person with those views. I only wonder when things get to the point when a majority notes that the Emperor is in his underwear. It will be interesting to see what happens then—if it happens.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Impeach Trump

A Proposal of Preventive Impeachment
   Donald Trump, president of the United States, alas, is now on the way of descending to the level of North Korea. So we have America and North Korea vying for supremacy. What could be more absurd? But the absurd is not necessarily impossible. Will an ill-tempered Tweet pull us into a war? There is no sign that Trump’s sidekicks are willing, not to mention able, to try to reign him in.
   This unprecedented situation calls for a similarly novel solution: Preventive Impeachment. Let the sane Republicans, if there are any, conspire to stop their president from Tweeting us into a devastating war. Prevention is better than a cure, more especially when the possible cure is dubious at best.
Addendum for August 12
   Today I am ninety-and-a-half years old. I don't celebrate half birthdays of course, but for a variety of reasons I always take note of it.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

From Book to Book
   I went to lie down after lunch, dividing my time between looking out of the window at the trees I think of as Gipfel and Wipfel and reading Breen’s Washington book. It is short, since he sticks pretty closely to the first president’s two trips early in his presidency, the first to the north the second to the south. So I came to the end fairly soon. The relatively low percentage (the way Kindle tells you where you are, rather than giving page numbers) was misleading, since the text was followed by a whole series of illustrations. (Pictures are not a Kindle strong suit, to say the least.)
   Since I had already decided to read next a very recent biography of Jefferson by John B. Boles, I didn’t bother to get up, clicked to go to the Kindle Store, and conjured the book into my Kindle. I don’t know where it came from, but I was here in Mexico City and the text reached me very quickly. So, within minutes, I went from Washington to Jefferson and started to read the book’s introduction. When, a bit later, I went back to my computer, I found an email that told me what was charged to my credit card for Jefferson’s biography.

   I know that I have orated before about the miracle—as it looks to me—of getting books to this off the beaten past location virtually instantly. But miracle deserve to be praised.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

On the Creation of the United States

T.H. Breen’s Washington’s Journey
   I’m now reading a book on a quite different subject. I was prompted to conjure it into my Kindle by a  favorable review of it in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. But two matters were much more important: the author, T.H. Breen (known as Tim) and I had been colleagues at Northwestern and the book, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation, is on an important subject about which I was completely, shamefully, ignorant.
   While I am basically an historical ignoramus, I knew a little about the revolutionary war, the fighting that took place free the states of the new world from the rule by Great Britain, located on the European continent three thousand miles away. I knew that the states on the American continent got together in a federation to throw off the British yoke, but I never gave a thought that states who collaborated to accomplish that single goal would have to “come together” in a quite different and considerably more significant way than by agreeing on a constitution—supremely important, to be sure, but only if it were actually adhered to. Washington’s Journey gives an account of an important chapter in the story of how thirteen states became the United States.
   (I might add, parenthetically, the book I am referring to gives an account of an early chapter of this process.  In my view, the final chapter about the unification of the—now 50—states has not yet been written.)    

Sunday, July 30, 2017


   Donald Trump, our president, has a record of acting impulsively. He has now appointed someone who outdoes even him at that game. (Game? Surely not.) Anthony Scaramucci, just made Communications Director, has stepped in with both feet, if without a head, and threatened to fire everyone in sight for leaking. True or false about those alleged leakers—and in most cases that’s not been established—it’s not what the country needs. Another lightweight full of ideas about what not to do, without a glimpse of what should be done.
   Trump’s latest appointment appears to be as incompetent as his boss, just different in the way he manifests it. Even more noisily, using a language that has not been heard coming from the office of any president. There is one thing that is good about all this. The appointment  of Scaramucci makes it very clear who Donald Trump is, to anyone who still had illusions.
   As for the future, Der Krug geht zum Brunnen bis a bricht, a favorite saying of my mother. The pitcher goes to the well until it breaks.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Arturo Toscanini

Some Comments about a  Recent Biography of Toscanini

   I heard Toscanini once in person. The music appreciation club of my high school, Brooklyn Tech, got tickets to the NBC Symphony, where we heard Toscanini conducting Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Studio 8H. I found out a  great many years later—or thought I did— that Shosty (as we called him) had not at all liked that performance. But now know that this report of the composer’s opinion in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony was actually quite suspect.
   I can’t say that this early NBC Symphony experience played a role in my getting to read the recent Harvey Sachs mega-biography of Toscanini, whom one might well call the paradigmatic conductor of the 20th century. I just finished that big book—on Kindle where, lacking page numbers, you can never find out just how big a book—and now want to make a number of remarks about it—reactions that in no way add up to a review.
   The first considerable chunk of Toscanini’s conducting career had him almost exclusively conducting operas. While I was aware of this fact, I had no idea of the role opera played in those years before radio not to mention television. Large audiences expressed themselves by shouting, clapping, stamping their feet. But still, I was more aware of that involvement than I was of the actual operas that engaged these audiences.  Of course, there were the operas of Verdi and then Puccini, but there were numerous operas that I had never heard of and, more shockingly, I was totally unaware of the existence many of their composers. Toscanini’s involvement was not only deep, touching on all aspects of the music and singing, but also broad, in that he was often concerned with various aspects of an opera’s staging.
  Another news-to-me item was the revelation of the breadth of Toscanini’s repertory of orchestral music. It is true that that he never cottoned on to atonal music (he made very negative remarks about Alban Berg’s Lulu)—nor did perform music influenced by Schönberg, his repertory was much broader than the works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner to which, to be sure, he turned again and again.
   My final comments pertain what was for me the most revealing aspect of this biography. Toscanini’s political views were much more deep-seated than is suggested by the labels “anti-fascist” and “liberal” that have correctly been given to him. Both Mussolini and Hitler wrote wooing letters to him, reproduced in the book, to no avail whatever. He not only rejected all such approaches, but self-consciously shifted his career as a performer to make sure that he did not in any way support such ideologies. Moreover, he donated considerable sums of money to “anti” causes and actively and financially supported victims of fascist and Nazi persecution. In short, the Maestro put his money where his mouth is, distinguishing himself from many of his non-Jewish conductor-confreres.

   The Harvey Sachs biography is detailed and consistently interesting. If you are interested in learning about the long and distinguished career of a musical giant, read his Toscanini: Musician of Conscience.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Interim Report

   I have nearly finished reading the recently published mega-biography of Toscanini by Harvey Sachs. I plan to do a piece on it, though certainly not a review. A good article about Toscanini by David Denby can be found in the July 10 and 17 New Yorker, together with a GREAT picture of the conductor. Stay tuned.
   Nor do I think that I’ll do any writing during the next few days. Mark (son) will be my welcome visitor  tomorrow, staying a few days. We will spend our time talking and eating and maybe go to a museum—if it’s of interest to him. Daughter Ellie is out of town and so are the grandchildren—who are children no more. When that visit is over I’ll try to post more interesting stuff.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Press on Trump

The Press Stays Calm
   I want to congratulate the press—or at least the small (mostly NYTimes) portion that I read—for giving a fair shake to President Trump without criticism or sarcasm. Maybe that’s what it takes to stay in business, but it is something of an achievement to remain calm and “objective” in a piece like this “Trump Says He Has Signed More Bills Than Any President, Ever. He Hasn’t.”* This is a long and respectful article that shows that the President of the United States—Our president—is ignorant about the history that he cites, brags about accomplishments that he didn’t accomplish, and just plain lies.
  Why am I congratulating the press—specifically the NYTimes for producing an article such as this? Because the authors (Michael D. Shear and Karen Yourish) and their editors have resisted the temptation, surely great, to be sarcastic, censorious, hectoring, or in other ways grandstanding. Neither they nor I have experienced a president about whom such a report could (truthfully) be written.
   But they are right to make their report straight. Those of us who are appalled by the president we have acquired don’t need journalists to express any, not to say vehement, feelings in their reporting. Those others—and there are many, since under prevailing rules, Trump was fairly elected, would only be annoyed if the likes of the Times were in such a way implicitly censoring them for having done what they did. That’s what editorials and “commentaries” are for, not news  reports. I do think, to repeat, that such virtuous journalists should be given credit for sticking to the facts, in the face of temptations to express their own opinions.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My Life--Again

How I Spent My Life
   This will be the beginning of a piece on a topic that might generate a much longer essay and perhaps will one day. When you get old, it is well established, your thoughts turn more often to the past—probably in part because, having retired from an active career, there is less to engage the mind contemporaneously. So it has been with me, at ninety years, to the point that at night, during spells of wakedness, I recite to myself German songs—or at least their opening lines—which I have not sung since after the age of twelve, when we left Germany for America.
   But there are less trivial ways in which the past creeps into my present mind. I think about what I have done with my life—not in a weighty sense that reflects on accomplishments and failures, but in the quite casual sense as to how I have spent my time, though I won’t take up activities pertaining to family nor recreational and just plain living activities.
   First, there is reading and writing of philosophy. That’s first, because I think that I am mostly identified as a retired professor of  philosophy. Second there is my involvement with higher education as something of a commentator and as an administrator. Third is a long career as a woodworker. Fourth is my involvement with music, mostly passive, as a “serious” listener, and active as a member of various choruses over the years.
   Woodwork came early. I took to Laubsägen (jigsaw) when I was maybe ten and never abandoned my engagement with wood. I “discovered” music when about fourteen and took advantage of New York’s concert scene, while my high school chorus was the first of many to follow. Philosophy was the result of a casual encounter. I had taken a number of undergraduate philosophy courses (there were no majors at Columbia in my day), so when I returned from a fellowship year in Europe and a job in evaluation in the Voice of America was not funded, my undergraduate mentor, then chairman of Columbia’s philosophy department, said: “So, you might as well sign up as a philosophy graduate student” and promptly arranged for a small scholarship. Finally, after a series of department chairmanships, I let my name run in a search for dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern, which made me an administrator, but also led to my writings on higher education, in books and articles.

   There’s an outline. As suggested at the outset, I may flesh this out at a later time.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How I Spent my Life, [I]

   This will be the beginning of a piece on a topic that might generate a much longer essay and perhaps will one day. When you get old, it is well established, your thoughts turn more often to the past—probably in part because, having retired from an active career, there is less to engage the mind contemporaneously. So it has been with me, now ninety years old, to the point that at night, during spells of wakedness, I recite to myself German songs—or at least their opening lines—which I have not sung since after the age of twelve, when we left Germany for America.
   But there are less trivial ways in which the past creeps into my present mind. I think about what I have done with my life—not in a weighty sense that reflects on accomplishments and failures, but in the quite casual sense as to how I have spent my time. I won’t discuss activities pertaining to family and recreational and just plain living activities.
   First, there is reading and writing of philosophy. That’s first, because I think that I am mostly identified as a retired professor of  philosophy. Second there is my involvement with higher education as something of a commentator and an administrator. Third is a long career as a woodworker.

   This last came first by many years. I took to Laubsägen (jigsaw) when I was maybe ten and never abandoned that engagement with wood. Philosophy was the result of a casual encounter. I had returned from a fellowship year in Europe and visited my undergraduate mentor, then chairman of Columbia’s philosophy department. I had applied for a job as an evaluator of the Voice of America which turned out not to be funded. “So, you might as well sign up as a philosophy graduate students and promptly arranged for a small scholarship. And that’s how I got into philosophy.  More anon.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Caro On Robert Moses

I am done with the Robert Caro book on Robert Moses—all the way to page 1162, plus some of the back matter, as it’s called in the book trade. In the course of reading, I marked some passages and made a few notes in preparation of a blog post; but have now decided to let a decent review inform you instead:
   Here I just want to note how impressive I find Caro’s achievement to be. He has control of a mind-boggling amount of detail, always given in its authentic specificity, composed in a narrative that moves along, at all times clear, never “rhetorical.” The book deserves all the praise and prizes it has received, plus one for the ability to harness so huge amount of material between the pages of a mere book.
   I am puzzled about one thing, the subtitle: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. As a somewhat casual reader, I thought of Moses’ impact on New York was both good and bad. But while certainly bad, I don’t see the very extreme “fall of New York” label reflected in the text. I suspect an editor’s “suggestion.” A very good book! After this, on to other things. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Falling When Old
   Old people fall. My father, in his eighties, fell and broke a hip. (I was not living in New York, where my parents were at home in a Second Avenue apartment.) My father was hospitalized and passed away not long after arriving there. It was either a stroke or a heart attack. My mother and I agreed that there was no point to authorizing an autopsy to determine which was the cause  of death.
   Now, nearly half a century later, 
   I am old—at the age of 90; and I fall. Several times in the last couple of years. One fall led to a visit to the hospital and an excessive number of x-rays that found a couple of cracked ribs. The other times yielded a variety of scrapes and wrenches, but thankfully no trips to the hospital.
   But why do old people fall?  I am sure there is an answer on the internet, but I have not sought that out. 
   Why do I fall? I have no ready answer. For one of those episodes alcohol may have been a contributing cause. But that was distinctly not the case for others and certainly not for a recent instant that left a number of unwanted marks on me, some quite painful.
    I now move along very carefully and lately use a cane even in the house; a walker is next, now standing by. This is not an hysterical worry; I feel mighty insecure just walking along on a clear flat surface. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with the muscles of my legs, When suitably accompanied, I can stride forward at a quite decent pace.
   So what accounts for the distinct strong sense of wobbliness that I now feel just going from my room to the bathroom a few feet down the hall? My mind is functioning more or less as it has all these years and my leg muscles seem in good shape.
  What I have so far withheld is that there has been a certain numbness in my feet(cause unknown), though that seems to have no effect on mobility. In short, I cannot find in me a cause of the distinct wobbliness that characterizes my walking. Ideas anybody?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My Restaurant

The Gipsy Fish
   I’ve written about the Gipsy Fish before, but herewith another visit. I go very often, with whoever is the companion on my walk. It is just far enough from our house that I can call the way there and back an adequate exercise outing without having been overtaxed. So that establishment has become the only restaurant—in any city I have lived in—at which I have become a “regular.”
   When we get there for lunch, it is always early, since most locals like to have lunch around three, while I stay closer to my American practices. So there is no problem getting the same table next to an open expanse, overlooking a busy corner—that of Rodin and Holbein. (The streets in this area have the name of artists; I’ve given up on composing dialogues of those that meet at intersections.)
   Being a regular has its modest privileges. Before I sit down—not a trivial effort, given the state of my knees, one of the helpers puts a cushion on my chair—the unsolicited result of a comment made quite some time ago that for my unpadded behind the chairs were pretty hard.
   Now what happens next is pretty crucial. Fairly soon, a well-made martini appears. Patrik, a companion of mine before he returned to his Belgian roots, had taught them how, with my favored proportions of  four (gin) to one (vermouth), making Gipsy Fish one of the rarer places here where you can get a real martini. (I’m not addicted to them; though with one a day, that’s more than I’ve tended to have in the past.)
   But of course, we’re at a restaurant, one specializing in sea food. They offer a zillion dishes, but I stick to very few of them. I’m neither a gourmand nor a gourmet, so I mostly limit myself to about one of three of that multitude. Call me unadventurous. I don’t mind; it’s true.
   I’ve been reading depressing stories—in my book (see above) or about Trumpland and about Israel. They deserve responses, but right now I’m not up to tackling that. Maybe later, maybe never.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Power Broker; Enough already
   I’ve gotten to just under p. 900 (with more than 200 to go) with only now-and-then short bits of skimming. I plan to finish the book. But I must say, it’s not a pleasant experience. The last chunk I read is typical. [1] Moses proposes the route for a road that is costly in dollars and, more importantly, in the upheaval of families who live in the houses that would be demolished. [2] A much less damaging alternative is proposed and pushed for by adherents, solid citizens. [3] Moses is approached, but won’t even listen to the alternative proposal.
   It makes for downright unpleasant reading, so that I have to force myself to go on. I’ve come to  wonder how the book’s author, Robert Caro, could carry on, since he had to give an account of all this in the meticulous detail that he does, without—at best—getting disgusted. One moral of this story is that we don’t give enough credit to the fortitude of the stomach that listens to and gives an account of a lot of crap.
* * * * *
   There are volumes to be said about the Robert Moses book, but I don’t plan to comment further on this theme. It’s either do it right or don’t do it at all. I’m for the latter.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Time Out

I'm still reading the Robert Moses book and will get to more faithful blog-minding when I am done with it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Caro's Megabook on Robert Moses

   I’m now past page 600 of Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses, about half-way through its text. (There are an additional hundred pages of notes plus an extensive index.)  When I’m done, this will make the longest continuous one volume book I can recall reading. But it’s the wrong question to ask whether Moses, a  New York politician of the first half of the 20th century, merits as much prose as might be devoted to a Napoleon biography.
  The Power Broker, in all of its unwieldy girth, is not really a biography, but the accounting of Moses’s political and economic activities while serving in several positions in and around  New York City and how his personality shaped his actions and how they in turn affected his personality. That calls for the introduction of a large number of “characters”—a huge number—who were active then—a lot or a little.

   But the direction of the flow seems to be toward some sort of nadir of the book’s “hero.” While there are plenty of sections that give an account of Robert Moses’ inappropriate willfulness, there is no sign as yet of the nadir that accounts for the book’s subtitle, “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” I fully intend to read the rest of the book, but I must say that much of that is not a pleasant experience.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the Way to Becoming Mayor

An Odd Moment on the Way to LaGuardia’s Becoming Mayor of New York
   While I’m well into Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses, it’s “only” to page 360—there being 1162 of text. The complex narrative is immensely interesting (that Pulitzer was certainly deserved) and of course about much more than the book’s ambiguous hero. Needless to say, you won’t get a review on this blog; that much work I leave to others. But I will probably report about some passages that strike me of particular interest, starting with the following.
   A Fusion Party had been formed with the aim of beating the Tammany candidate for New York City mayor whose term would begin in January 1934. The clean government elders serially approached a large bunch of distinguished New Yorkers and were turned down. Then they came to one who refused the nomination on quite unusual grounds.
   That would-be candidate was Nathan Straus who was both delighted and flattered by the proposal and asked for a couple of days before giving his response. When they met again Straus told the Fusion elders that he had decided to decline. “The ill-fated star of Adolf Hitler was rising. . . . Jews were accused by Hitler of endeavoring encompass the control and government of the whole world . . . Straus refused to accept a nomination for Mayor at a time when Herbert Lehman [a Jew] was Governor because it might give credence in some quarters to Mr. Hitler’s charges. . . .” (p.353)
   This refusal led to the nomination of Fiorello LaGuardia who was then elected Mayor of the City of New York. It is not known whether The Little Flower knew of Hitler’s role in the prologue to his nomination.
   P.S. LaGuardia was mayor from the time we arrived in New York in March 1939 until 1945. I was in high school for most of those years and listened always to LaGuardia’s Sunday broadcasts on WNYC. He ended each of these talks with a resounding “Patience and Fortitude.”   



Monday, May 29, 2017

Producer vs. User

The User Comes Second 
In the past, I have occasionally fulminated about the distinct advantage that is often given to the packager of whatever, as compared to the consumer of the package. Good examples, if strictly only an analogy, are those envelopes sent out by various governmental agencies: messages that require the recipient to carefully insert a knife on three sides of an envelope to get at some trite message thus revealed. Euch mach ihr’s leicht; mir macht ihr’s schwer, as Hans Sachs would have it in the Meistersinger. There is nothing surprising about that package, since basically, it shoves the work from the “producer” to the consumer. (What else is new?)
   I’ve now come across an analogous example of a rarer sort. As previously mentioned, I am now reading Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses. If ever there was such a thing, it’s a mega-book of nearly 1300 pages; big pages.

   But its bulk makes it a nuisance to read. Over two inches thick and weighing maybe five pounds. It’s OK to have reference text come in big packages, since they are usually just consulted in bits and pieces, but it is not equally suitable for a book to be read through from beginning to end to be so huge. To put it bluntly, a monster book like that is a nuisance to read. The “user”—that is reader—would have been better off with two volumes, even though that would be slightly more costly (it’s only a paperback). An e-book version would have even be better, but, surprisingly, none such is available. The user is not the first considered in the book’s design.                                                                                                                                                         

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


   I’m done with Katharine Graham’s autobiography. A very long, well written, and immensely interesting book. When I now read of the deeds of the Washington Post I wish there were a narrative that bridges the Graham period to that of Jeff Bezos, the current owner. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve never followed the Post, being a NYTimes addict from way back, while also trying to keep my newspaper reading within limits.
  I was rummaging Kindle possibles, when I clicked on Kory Stamper’s “The Secret Life of Dictionaries” a subtitle, instead of the “Sample” I was aiming to get. So, I’m reading it. Interesting enough: I’m learning quite a bit. The future will tell whether I stick with it to the end. (It is no doubt an age phenomenon, but while in earlier years, I felt that I had to read a book to the end—though I did not always do so, always with feelings of guilt—I have gotten over that inhibition.

   So much so, that I have now interrupted that reading with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, which just arrived in the mail. This book about New York’s fabulous (take that label literally) Robert Moses mimics its subject in being just short of two inches thick—and immensely heavy. It’s a good thing I don’t read in bed these days. I’ll no doubt report—eventually.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump's Sins

Is it Curious? I don’t think so.
   I read a great many articles about Trump, almost all of them negative, many of them exceedingly so. I am sure everyone who is awake to the current scene is having the same experience: being constantly apprised of our president’s stupidities, ignorance, impulsiveness, and more of the same—no doubt all true.
   What surprises me is that as far as I know, there are no rebuttals issued by the Trump camp. These attacks that would be slander if they weren’t true are simply being absorbed, so to speak.

   I have a simple, two-part, explanation and wonder whether any readers have a more complex one.  [1] Trump himself doesn’t read these attacks and, for the most part, is ignorant of them. And [2], his aids and hangers-on have no motive to rebut them, even when on occasion they don’t agree. For them, in the language of game theory: high risk, no gain.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Katharine Graham’s Book

   I have let more than the usual amount of time go by for adding a post on my blog, because I have simply been too busy. I am reading an utterly fascinating book—and a long one. It is Personal History by Katharine Graham (née Meyer, 1917-2001). I’m not done, though probably not all that far from the end. (There are no page numbers in a Kindle text and the percentage read, given at the bottom of each page is of the entire book, before you know how much there is after the end of the text, by way  of appendices, end notes, illustrations, etc. and of course an often sizeable index.)
   I may yet do a post or two, but right now I will only put forward a plug for this remarkable achievement. It is very well written and consistently interesting. It is not only about a time to varying degrees familiar to most readers will be familiar with, but its cast of characters includes a great many familiar names, not excluding Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They and many others are not casual acquaintances, but friends who saw each other with some frequency. Katharine’s father was a very wealthy financier with entrée into many worlds, assisted by many servants in a variety of houses. He bought the Washington Post which came to play a signal role in Katharine’s life.
   Personal History is extremely well-composed and well- written; there is not a dull page in a long text. It won a Pulitzer Prize. If there were a prize for a life well-lived, Katharine should get that too. Read the book.

Friday, May 5, 2017


Active and Passive Vocabulary
   I’ve been reading a miscellany of books and articles, now that I am mostly free of duties, more  than in recent years. That’s part of the reason why recently I’ve become more conscious than before of my relationship to language. The other cause of that phenomenon is that during times I’m awake during the night and first thing in the morning, German, my first and only language until we came to America at my age twelve, keeps popping into my head, mostly in the form of the opening verses of maybe half a dozen German children’s songs. I take this quasi-return to childhood to be one of the more benign age phenomena, since I’ve had little occasion to use German in some years.
   I have always realized that there was little if any difference between my active and passive vocabulary. This, it has been said, is not unusual when a second language has been acquired. It contrasts with an alleged norm that, as I understand it has the vocabulary one is able to use when expressing oneself be nowhere near as large as the one that is understood.
   Now, for some reason I have recently become self-conscious about the words of which my reading was composed. I came across quite a few words that I could not recall ever having used when writing. Mind you, I am not talking of an esoteric vocabulary or bits of technical language, not to mention slang or “indecent” words, but of perfectly ordinary English ones that I have just never employed in written sentences I have constructed.
    I had always thought that the difference between an active and a passive vocabulary is essentially a difference of knowledge: one can correctly deploy one’s active vocabulary in every appropriate context. One can understand—make out the meaning of—one’s passive vocabulary, on the other hand, when coming across it in someone else’s writing or speech, though without being sure as to how to use it.
   If my recent spate of self-consciousness has revealed anything at all it is that there is another sense of the pair of active and passive that is more idiosyncratic and somewhat mysterious.