A Reading Program (from 2010)

I often go to dinner alone at my favorite restaurant, the Casa di Calabria, in Haledon, NJ. On those occasions, I do a lot of reading – but I do it slowly. For the past couple of months, I’ve been reading two books on American history: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United Statesand William J. Bennett’s America: the Last Best Hope. Zinn’s a famous leftist (perhaps even communist) account and Bennett’s a rightist (conservative) account. Both books are very stimulating (to me) because of the ways in which they are similar and the ways in which they are different. Zinn’s famous book – which I am reading now only after he is dead (1/27/10) – is both jolting and, ultimately, unconvincing. He includes an awful lot of leftist BS along with much very interesting stuff about class conflict (sometimes warfare) in American history. But he’s pushing it, finding more there than there is there. Bennett is pretty good for a conservative, whitewashes things only here and there, is pretty honest (as far as I can tell), and – surprisingly  – agrees with Zinn on lots of things.

I’ve been noticing an interesting (puzzling) convergence of Left and Right in various areas lately. E.g., Nader and Napolitano. Chomsky being adopted by the Right because he is – really – an anarchist (extreme libertarian) – even though he tries the impossible synthesis of anarchism and socialism (my old impossible dream: anarcho-syndicalism).

By the way, if you are interested in more conventional studies of American history, see Carl Degler’s Out of Our Past (moderate-centrist, but still liberal, bias) and William Appleman Williams The Contours of American History (leftist). Both really good books (I think). There are, most likely, more recent works from both (various?) sides.

I don’t know how widely it is known, but I was a history major in college and went on to earn an MA in history (modern Europe and Renaissance & Reformation – there was no such thing as the Renaissance!) and was ABD (Tudor-Stuart England) at Rutgers University/New Brunswick before my inescapable love of Philosophy took me away to a Ph.D. in the latter field. I have continued to read history (mostly European) ever since. I have, most of the time, found American history to be pedestrian and boring, but I’m sure that I am wrong about that. One of many things I am wrong about. (On the Renaissance bit, read Lynn Thorndike and J. Huizinga. Huizinga’s book, The Waning of the Middle Ages is one of the greatest books of all time.)

Something based on Zinn: When I was a child, a long time ago now, my grandparents, dye-house workers in Paterson, used to say from time to time, “We’re gonna end up in the poorhouse.” I didn’t know what that meant, and I don’t really know all that much about it now. It scared me. I thought we were going to get put out of our apartment on North 11th Street and get put into something like – I did not know what – something awful. In later years, when I grew more and became more educated, I read Charles Dickens and learned of the workhouses in England (Oliver Twist and all that). Then, thinking back, I thought that that was what my Sadie (my maternal grandmother) and my Gramp (my maternal grandfather) must have been talking about.

Later, my family (parents, sister, and I) fell badly. Were really evicted. Thrown out into the streets of Paterson. Homeless, living in a doorway/hallway – forty years before the TV cameras showed up. Sherry and I into (different) foster homes. A series of them. But we never went into a poorhouse. By then, the 1950s, there were no more poorhouses in the US. Zinn goes into this. Arouses my class antipathies. Pisses me off exceedingly. No wonder I became a Trotskyist later on.

To this day, although I am now (incomprehensibly) a conservative of a sort, with libertarian sympathies, I still hate the rich with rather a passion. I can’t stand them. The Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Kerrys, even the Buckleys, all the rest – they make me puke. I am most definitely not a Republican. If only Communism had worked out…! But….

By the way, when I do this reading bit at the Calabria, I drink either Martinis or Gimlets. Tonight, it was a 4.5 ounce Bombay Sapphire Martini (no Vermouth) followed by a B&B straight-up. So….

To me, the entire history of the United States is summed up in the following song by Bessie Smiff (I know it’s spelled “Smith” – that was my mother’s maiden name):


Check out the Loosiana version – including Creole French – by Lizzie Miles (if you can find it). It’s a great version.

I love the Blues.


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