Reading Blog: June 2022
This month I read two books while on the road, before returning home. The third ‘book’ is more of a printed pamphlet, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing (John Zilcosky, 2003)
While planning a trip to Prague, it makes sense to reach for a book about their famous writer, Franz Kafka. I really liked this book when it stuck to the subject. Though Kafka generally limited his own travel to central Europe in a travel-friendly era, he pined for distant lands and wrote his own travel story (Amerika / The Man Who Disappeared). He was embarrassingly enthralled with travel/adventure serials for boys. In an experimental work Richard and Samuel (where only one chapter got published due to disagreements with a coauthor) the concept is rather modern and decolonial — a travelogue exoticizing an uneventful trip from Prague to Zurich.
When I visited the Kafka Museum in Prague, they make a point about his writings being more-or-less set in Prague based on certain locations. They also delve into Kafka’s day job in accident prevention and insurance, a revelation into his familiarity with bureaucratic horror and the darker side of the Industrial Revolution. Both the museum and the book explore how Kafka struggled with a sense of finding his home and identity here at times, growing up in a Jewish neighborhood but isolated from the surrounding community (the last of Kafka’s works were only recently translated from German to Czech).
A significant portion of this book is about the history of travel writers such as Goethe, who a well-read Kafka would reference, questions about fleeting references to travel (e.g. the subject of The Metamorphosis starting out as a traveling salesman), and a sexual psychoanalysis of The Trial (Freud would be relevant and topical in Kafka’s world). I should admit that I have read only The Metamorphosis and none of the other works in full, so was more surprised to read about the sexuality of The Trial and not just the straight-up bureaucracy chaos which has been incorporated into basic social knowledge.
Clean room, no beetles wanted: how a young Kafka hoped to write budget travel guides
Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written,Franz Kafka hoped to…
Churchill: His Times, His Crimes (Tariq Ali, 2022)
This newly-published book takes on the legendary status of Churchill, who now is cited as a quick reference or font of quotable wisdom in the UK and US. PM Boris Johnson wrote a 2014 biography of Churchill, he appears in The Crown and Doctor Who, Sen. Ted Cruz once showed a temporary Churchill tattoo on TV, and he’s been referenced by all sides while trying to keep the gears turning during the pandemic of 2020.
White House likens Trump to Churchill in WW2
The White House press secretary has likened President Donald Trump's "resilience and determination" during the…
Ali, a prolific writer and pundit in Britain, has compiled a historical challenge to Churchill and the surrounding mythology. He explains how this is nothing new in the UK — Churchill was hated in some parts for his pre-war role in breaking up strikes, and would lose the PM position in summer 1945. In Ali’s view it was Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War which led to a re-invention of Churchill as a heroic figure.
Churchill came out of colonial Britain with no notes — even when political fellows found it easy to criticize Belgium in the Congo — and has tons of plainly racist views in his writing, yet was eager to be assigned to the colonial career pipeline in Africa.
In WW1 he directed troops to land at Gallipoli (somewhat forgotten in the US and UK, but an historic tragedy for Australia and New Zealand). Constantly fearing communist influence, he backed an unpopular campaign to send troops into Russia and restore the Tsar.
Notoriously Churchill’s policies toward Ireland neither won over the locals or successfully kept it from division (Biden, like Obama, opted to remove his bust from the Oval Office).
And in Bengal, Churchill’s administration ignored a famine and continued exporting rice during the famine of 1943. This is the one event which I knew I’d find in the book, but if anything Ali makes excuses about pre-famine deaths, the risk of a Japanese invasion, and natural disasters.
In any case, Churchill hated the Indian independence movement and refused to accept their warnings of famine, and suppressed information rather than intervene. Even faced with the threat of the Indian National Army (a group of expelled Indian nationalists and captured soldiers from across Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia), Churchill resisted any guarantees to the National Congress while expecting their support in WW2.
This book could be summarized as A People’s History of Churchill, but there’s a lot left in the mix. When the army sent young Churchill to Cuba as a military reporter to cover the Spanish war against local revolutionaries, that story and writing is relevant to Churchill’s lifelong siding with colonial powers and monarchies. Yet there’s a lot of additional writing about the revolutionaries, to the point where I wondered if Ali has been working on a Cuba book?
There’s a similar tangent about the role of Tito in Yugoslavia, and even the causes of WW1. In Ali’s telling, WW1 was a war over colonies, with Germany and Italy arriving late to the game and seeking better standing. The British decision to join the war is seen as needless, and the cause of years of prolonged trench warfare, US involvement, Hitler, and WW2. These hot takes are not uncommon in the UK, apparently?
Britain entering first world war was 'biggest error in modern history'
Britain could have lived with a German victory in the first world war, and should have stayed out of the conflict in…
But even if you take a massive WW1 red pill here, the case is not made that Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) was responsible? It’s strange to say that the Kaiser’s Germany was the more true democracy? I was def weirded out by this section.
In a tangential example of Churchill mythology:
The Myth of Winston Churchill's Bulldog
One maxim of folk psychology suggests that people choose to own dogs that look like themselves and there is a bit of…
Credem: Banking on Cheese (Nikolaos Trichakis, Gerry Tsoukalas, Emer Moloney; 2015)
The Italian bank Credem has a warehouse where Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheels mature and serve as collateral for cheese producers.
I heard about this in some corner of Twitter or Reddit and wanted to read the longer form Harvard Business School case study, so here we go. It has the feel of a longer-form article in The Economist, so I wouldn’t recommend paying for a physical copy.
Cheese is a rare industry where there’s a meaningful benefit to both parties to have the cheese sit as collateral. I was surprised to hear that the bank has such large holdings (one client having deposited 25,000 wheels) so it was not just a one-off gimmick or handshake agreement.
Unfortunately for cheese bankers, the price responds quickly to small changes in demand or infrastructure. The ‘case study’ aspect is around whether to sell off a client’s cheese because they cannot provide additional cash or cheddar to make up for the falling market price of their collateral.
(sorry I know it is Parmigiano Reggiano not cheddar, but how do you not)
The authors give other examples where warehoused commodities have served as collateral. You can see why this is uncommon because of how many of these were precursors to fraud. In this case, Credem uses an established warehouse (MGT) to store and mature the cheese so that it’s properly maintained and answers to them on quality and accuracy of their reserves.
Updates to Previous Reads
While in Tallinn, Estonia, I visited a history museum and memorial to victims of communism.
I was reminded of previous read Smashing Statues at an outdoor park where they’ve placed many statues from Soviet occupation. Each statue has a placard explaining where it once stood and how it came to the museum.
This statue has its own article on Estonian-language Wikipedia.
On OpenStreetMap someone put in the work: