What I'm Reading: Tunneling to the Past

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “what’s-I’m-reading” roundup. (After the newsletter started arriving once a week, it got harder to fit them in.) But today I wonder if you feel the same as I do, worried about the state of the world and anxious to find answers—or at least a way to avoid looking for them—in books.

Part of that means reading works that are new to me, including “Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict” by Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro.

Covering the war in Gaza inevitably brought to mind other conflicts, including U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If, as they say, history doesn’t repeat itself but rhymes, the battles for control of Mosul and Helmand feel like the preceding couplets of a long, dark poem that now also includes Gaza City and Rafah. I took up this book as a way to gain a more grounded perspective on those past conflicts and others.

A paragraph from one of the first chapters of the book seems particularly relevant. (For context, “asymmetric” wars are those fought between groups very different in size and capabilities, often involving guerrilla warfare against a more traditional state army):

In asymmetric wars, the fight is fundamentally not for territory but for people because people hold critical information, which is true to a greater extent than in symmetric conflicts because the ability of the stronger side to take advantage of any information is always very high and because holding territory is not enough to guarantee victory. The stronger party in asymmetric conflicts can physically take over territory for a short period of time whenever she chooses to do so. But holding and administering that territory is another matter, as many would-be conquerors have learned.

I was also moved to reread a book I first looked at a long time ago. Not, I think, because I long to rediscover the familiar prose, but because I feel compelled to go back and interrogate the now unknown version of myself that turned the pages long ago.

I first read Christopher Isherwood's “The Berlin Novels,” the book that inspired the musical “Cabaret,” in college, after seeing a particularly gripping production of the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (Strangely, when I looked it up I realized that it was the precursor to the show currently on Broadway, and starred a young Eddie Redmayne, but I had no idea: he was just a boy at the time, rather than a star of international fame.)

That Fringe production's staging of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a sweet folk song that ultimately turns out to be a Nazi anthem, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences I've ever had in the theater. At first, the song was staged as a delicate melody sung by smiling young people, and I remember smiling and wanting to hum it, not realizing what turn would come. Then, in a later act, cast members nestled in the audience belted it out in a much uglier, more martial tone.

In my memory, they gave the Nazi salute and encouraged the audience to sing along, but I'm not sure if that was the actual choreography or just the general atmosphere. What I remember clearly, however, is watching another audience member absentmindedly pick up the small flag that had been placed on a table in front of her and start waving it in time to the music, before suddenly realizing that there was it was a swastika and to drop it in horror.

It was such an astonishing emotional experience that I purchased “Berlin Stories” to further immerse myself in Isherwood's stories about Weimar Berlin. Rereading it then, I remember thinking it was an interesting exploration of self-delusion and the complicity of ordinary people in the rise of the Nazis. But I didn't see any particular parallels or warnings about my world. Germans in the 1930s, I thought, might have absent-mindedly saluted the Nazis, but that wouldn't happen today.

Rereading it today is a bit like taking a time machine to confront that past self who was so sure that the arc of history was bending towards justice. This does not mean that I see an imminent return of the Nazis to power. But I no longer have the unshakable faith of my younger days that such risks are in the past.

Sometimes I just want to read to escape. Right now on my nightstand is a copy of the screenplay for “Matt & Ben,” a very funny play by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers that launched Kaling's career in 2003.

And next door is Plum Sykes’s “Wives Like Us,” which gently dissects the foibles of the wealthy and fashionable English Cotswolds, as her previous novels, “Bergdorf Blondes” and “The Debutante Divorcée,” did for New York society. Sykes, who also recently wrote this amusing piece for the Times Style section on the rise of “executive butlers,” has a Nancy-Mitford-like ability to skewer a scene like an outsider, while still providing the details that only an insider, or at least a quasi-insider, could offer.

It's been a while, so I want to know what you've read!

I want to hear about things you've read (or watched, or listened to) that you recommend to the broader community of interpreter readers.

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