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ALARMS AND DIVERSIONS FOR THE THINKING PERSON

Forum File

Saturday, January 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

The reading list

“Indeed, it's very American to think that we can better our lives by picking and choosing from inspirational tomes that are available to anyone with a spare $20. We don't believe that people who are rich, or who have steamy marriages, are fundamentally different from the rest of us. We believe that they have discovered some knowledge that is accessible to us as well. The fact that we choose our gurus according to who seems most compelling is also very American. We have no state religion, and few of us do things just because our great-grandparents did. We don't listen to a village elder who tells us what the good life looks like. Instead, we construct it ourselves, from what we see of the world around us – and what we find at the bookstore.

“That reflects the philosophy of our Founding, says Indiana University folklorist Sandra K. Dolby, whose treatise 'Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them' takes an anthropological look at these mixtures of case studies and morals. Americans have long celebrated education outside the school, she notes, from libraries to mutual improvement societies. A democracy requires thoughtful citizens who believe that society can improve with effort. Is it surprising that such citizens believe that they can improve with effort, too? The Founders 'wanted people to be thinking of being the best kinds of people they could be, if the democracy was going to succeed,' Dolby says.”

“And so, living out the Founders' expectations, we undertake our happiness projects, trusting that with hard work – and perhaps a few positive thought vibrations – we can succeed. 'Americans think they can find a way to fix anything,' says Dolby, 'including themselves.' ”

From “The Paperback Quest for Joy” at city-journal.org

A quiz

What did America buy from Mexico in 1853 for $10 million?

Wisdom of the ages

“It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism while the wolf remains of a different opinion.” – William Ralph Inge

Current wisdom

“It shouldn't have taken this long to come to an agreement, and this shouldn't be the model for how we do things around here.” – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on talks that led to an agreement with the White house on fiscal cliff legislation.

Quiz answer

The southern portion of Arizona and New Mexico. The deal was made by James Gadsden, hence “the Gadsden purchase.”

Snob words

antepenultimate (an-tee-puh-NUHL-tuh-mit), adj. – third from the end (since penultimate means next to last or second from the end, not “really, really ultimate,” as some people suppose), as in: “When a weak batter meets a strong pitcher, the first swing at the ball might also be the antepenultimate one.”

Today in history

On this date in 1836, Davy Crockett arrived in Texas, just in time for the Alamo; shudda stayed home, Davy.

Now you know

There are more than 500 million domestic cats in the world, with approximately 40 recognized breeds.