Posts Tagged ‘eric Hoffer’

Jesse Kornbluth here, from, recalling the summers when I did nothing but read.

A friend suggested I pull together a reading list for the summer. I had a hard time taking her seriously. She’s one of the smartest, best-read people I know — I’d much rather read her list than mine.

But I understand why she’d like mine. Most of the books that you hear about elsewhere do fall onto my desk each week. I read at least a page of each. And then I give them away and look for an old, forgotten page-turner.

So what you’ll get here is balance: some new, some old. What you won’t get are books that take all summer to read; I have had the summer of reading Tolstoy, and while it was life-changing, it was only possible because I was a kid and my bills were small.

What you really won’t get here is rigorous intellectual challenge. New ideas? Yes, I hope so. But if, like me, you find the news close to unbearable, what you want from a summer book is a wallow in intelligent pleasure. And at a length you can handle in a weekend.

So: short books, mostly fiction, masterfully written, satisfaction highly likely. Slather on the sunscreen, pour the iced tea, and have at them.

Mission to Paris: The latest from Alan Furst, again set in France, again in 1938. If you’ve read any Furst, you have reason to hope this will be both delicious and exciting; if you haven’t, you showed up at just the right time.

The Stories of John Cheever
: 700 pages, but they go down like gin-and-tonics on the manicured lawn of a Connecticut hostess.

Defending Jacob: Everyone in this family annoyed me. But the set-up is bullet-proof: A teenager is killed, and it sure looks as if the killer is his classmate, son of the DA who prosecutes homicides.

The Fault in Our Stars: The best book I’ve read this year, and I say that even though it’s a Young Adult novel about kids with cancer. Just do it, for God’s sake.

50 Shades of Grey: Women beaten down in their marriages or limited in their sexual expression will find delight here. I don’t see how anyone else might — the sex is so bad you soon start to skip it. And isn’t that why you bought it?
Better choices:
The Garden of Eden: Hemingway’s surprising novel about a couple on their honeymoon who make it a threesome.
Jules et Jim: The French classic about three in what might be love
Smut: Two Alan Bennett short stories about Brits who step out of the box
A Sport and a Pastime: James Salter’s classic about a lost American man and a French shop girl.

Levels of the Game: In one epic tennis match, we learn everything about Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe.

Bonjour Tristesse: Francoise Sagan wrote this sophisticated beach romance when she was 18.

The Quiche of Death: A London PR executive retires early to savor the joys or English country life. As if.

Just Kids: Patti Smith’s fevered memoir.

The Kid from Tomkinsville:
A baseball novel. For kids. Maybe, but I read it again every few years.

The Queen’s Gambit: The more I tell you, the more you’ll wonder why. Just buy it. Read it. And pass it on.

These Days Are Ours: 20something New Yorkers, in the months after 9/11. Pitch perfect.

Sharon Olds: Poems that tell stories.

The True Believer: As we move closer to the election, Eric Hoffer’s short book will make more and more sense.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin: A note, left in a chateau: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.”

Radioactive: This inventive approach to the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie literally glows in the dark.

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag: All the pleasure of finding a treasure, but without spending a dime.

Jesus’ Son: Like your humor black? It doesn’t get blacker.

Dora Lives: Surfing’s baddest boy.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of, here today to offer an explanation why hard-core religious fundamentalists are so intent on enforcing their will not just on their women but on their government.

Eric Hoffer’s remarkable book, “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” is short: just 168 pages.

Hoffer believed in short.

Anything that needs to be said, he believed, could be said in 200 words.

Hoffer thought of himself as a writer of sentences, and his book is a collection of remarkable thoughts, simply and precisely expressed. (If you’re the kind who reads with a pen in hand, beware — you could find yourself underlining almost the entire book.)

But what freaks out any number of readers is that Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) is nobody’s ideal of a public intellectual. He had no real schooling. He spent most of his working life as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. Almost every day, he took a three-mile walk. Along the way, thoughts formed. Later they became sentences, then books. Over the years, he wrote ten. “The True Believer” is his masterpiece. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The genius of this book is Hoffer’s ability to see beyond individual behavior to patterns of thought and behavior. On page one:

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalists, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one… However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.

Whoa. Let’s unpack that.

What Hoffer is saying: Yes, you fundamentalist Christian dreaming of bombing Planned Parenthood… yes, you hard Right “conservative” who thinks life was better in 1955 and endorses any politician who pledges to get you there, no matter how…. yes, you militia member who’s certain that the government wants to confiscate your assault weapons before moving on to the rest of your arsenal — for Eric Hoffer, you are the spiritual brother of the Nazi, of bin Laden, of Stalin, of the KKK.

Why does Hoffer make such a blanket condemnation?

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.

As an idea, this isn’t a splash of cold water — it’s a bitch slap to all those who believe so strongly in a cause that they want everybody else to believe in it. That single-mindedness, that intolerance, is the core question of Hoffer’s book: what kind of people become fanatics?

The answer is personal. And psychological. Before they believed, Hoffer writes, they felt small, confused, destined for nothing. With belief, they feel strong, certain. Their fanaticism transforms them; losers become winners. (“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in himself.”)

Lost people attaching themselves to a passing raft — if the cause sounds almost randomly chosen, it is. (“In pre-Hitlerian times, it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.”)

The goal of the mass movement doesn’t matter? Not according to Hoffer. He says: the more unrealistic and unattainable, the better. It’s not even important that the doctrine be understood. In fact, Hoffer says, the harder it is to believe, the better. Forget your mind, trust your heart, the zealot says, and his followers do just that. (“We can be absolutely certain only about things we don’t understand.”)

You and I know that change is the one immutable law of life, that there are always at least two opinions, that we’ll probably die not knowing the ultimate answers. Not so the members of mass movements. They know it all. (“A mass movement…must act as if it had already read the book of the future to the last word. Its doctrine is proclaimed as a key to that book.”)

Right now, we are seeing the spread of anti-Moslem groups in Europe and anti-women’s groups everywhere. (That is textbook Hoffer: “A movement can exist without a God but no movement can exist without a devil.”) Here at home, we have quite a few zealots who also have a genius for identifying “devils” and turning them into “the Other.” So it seems fairly obvious to me that at some point in the next few years, home-grown extremists will move — perhaps violently — against people who thought they lived in a democracy.

There will be widespread disbelief when this happens. And punditry for weeks. Eric Hoffer’s work will not be quoted — it implicates many more people than the perpetrator of the violence. But if you’ve read “The True Believer,” you’ll have a clue why it happened. And what, if we’re unlucky, might come next.

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