Category Archives: Books

Visiting Walden; Reading Walden

A lovely day trip from Boston, Walden Pond is a large, crystalline lake, surrounded by tall trees and walking paths. Henry David Thoreau lived alone near its shores in the 1840s and was inspired to write his famous work, Walden. Today, many families visit to spend time outdoors and swim in the lake, and the Massachusetts park service runs a visitors’ center nearby with information about Thoreau’s life.  A replica of the tiny house Thoreau built for himself sits close to the center; a reminder of his call to live simply.

I visited in September with friends and was captivated by Thoreau’s house. It looked surprisingly like the tiny houses of recent social movements, aimed at either helping the homeless or getting stressed-out city dwellers to downsize and simplify. Suddenly I was envious of his project to live alone by the lake. I’d never read Walden; it was time to pick up the book. 

A reproduction of Henry David Thoreau’s house at Walden. 2018 Photo by Mark Holan

Walden is a first-person account that’s part nature study, part self-help, part political critique. Thoreau meanders for long passages but then makes a sharp point that seems right on target for 2018. Most pointedly, he talks about how quests for money, property and prestige tend to complicate our lives with pointless worry.

In passage after passage, he discusses the way we mindlessly accept society’s conventions and how poorly it serves us. He calls for truth in all things; even when others disagree:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.”

He emphasizes the tremendous value of reading and thought and how it strengthens the mind:

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

Even though he was alone in the woods, Thoreau did not hunt. Instead, he makes an explicit pitch for vegetarianism:

“Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

He sees personal health as both holistic and spiritual, which moved me deeply:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxim.

Almost eerily, he seems to forecast the dangers of climate change. Thoreau made detailed studies of the pond and its depth. In his day, workers would come each winter to harvest ice by cutting away the top layer of the pond and packing the ice in straw to send to the city. Thoreau saw how the pond itself seemed to react by melting faster as its top layer was cut away:

“Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.”

Later, he notes the ultimate power that the natural environment has over human life:

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

Thoreau is philosophical, but he alternates big thoughts with charming observations of the surrounding forest life.. Here he describes the foxes and wonders about  their motivations:

“Sometimes I heard the foxes as they ranged over the snow-crust, in moonlight nights, in search of a partridge or other game, barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if laboring with some anxiety, or seeking expression, struggling for light and to be dogs outright and run freely in the streets; for if we take the ages into our account, may there not be a civilization going on among brutes as well as men? They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated.”

On the day of our visit to Walden, I spent a pleasant day on its shores with my friends and their children, eating a picnic. My partner, a serious swimmer, swam across Walden and back and wrote his own thoughts on it. Though Thoreau’s life in one way seems very long ago, in another way it’s quite immediate. Many things about Walden, both the book and the place, will stay with me.

10 things I like about George Washington

I made a new friend this summer: George Washington, the first president of the United States.

We got acquainted through Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 900-plus page biography that  makes Washington seem so real, so human, and so appealing that I got excited about America’s democratic experiment all over again.

And obsessed with all things George Washington. I should note that I decided to read Chernow’s doorstopper of a book after reading and loving the much shorter (at 352 pages) Washington biography, His Excellency George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis. Both are fantastic reads that I recommend, so you have both long and short options.

Here’s my list of 10 things I like about George Washington, in no particular order:

  1. He believed public service should be done for the public good, not to get rich. He often refused salary or other compensation he was due.
  2. He didn’t like being famous and tried to avoid pageants and public displays in his honor. Sometimes he would sneak out of town early to avoid a farewell parade.
  3. At a time when slavery was widely accepted in his home state of Virginia, he freed the people he held in bondage when he died, taking measures in his will to establish their care.
  4. He liked women a lot and had many female friends. Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, gave him political advice and was a close confidant.
  5. He was an emotional person, prone to outbursts, but he worked hard to restrain himself in words and deeds.
  6. He was athletic and liked to ride his horse and dance.
  7. He was a researcher, studying up on business and politics. He consulted widely before he made decisions and considered all sides.
  8. He didn’t have his own children, but he was generous and kind to his step-children, nieces, nephews and children of friends. He offered them good advice through his letters.
  9. He had high standards for his friends, advisers, and staff, and he was very loyal to those who met his expectations.
  10. He was charmingly self-conscious about his false teeth.

Book Review of ‘A Higher Loyalty’ by James Comey

I wrote a review of former FBI director James Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty” on deadline,  because we wanted to get our report up as soon as possible. I got a copy of the book on Tuesday and then read it, wrote the review and had the piece edited so it could publish on Thursday. It begins:

In 2016, as the director of the FBI, James Comey publicly dissected Hillary Clinton’s email server controversy. Later, we learned that Comey was keeping to himself the beginnings of an investigation into Russia’s active interference in the U.S. election and potential connections to the Donald Trump campaign.

It was a perplexing contradiction for someone who said he was apolitical and above the fray.

Now James Comey wants to explain himself. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership is Comey’s story of what he did and why. MORE …

A fact-checker’s guide to Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’

From time to time, I happily get to review books for PolitiFact. Here’s my latest, a review of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. (And here are links to more book reviews I’ve written.)

Even books about Donald Trump seem to break norms: Trump hasn’t been in office a year, and already there’s a gossipy insider account that claims to show the real goings-on of the Trump White House. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House portrays an infighting senior team at each other’s throats, and a president too narcissistic and distracted to be capable of governing.

Is it accurate? Many details are simply wrong. Whether the larger narrative is true is a different question. …

A bigger problem with Fire and Fury, however, is that by any standard of sound journalism it has big problems with transparency and sourcing. MORE …

Harry Potter guest blog on MarkHolan.org

I wrote a guest post for Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog about the world of Harry Potter and a surprising connection to an Irish-American immigrant. I’ll send you over to Mark’s site to read the whole post, which is pegged to the new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them.” READ MORE.

Q and A with Lucas Graves, author of ‘Deciding What’s True’

Here’s a link to my interview with Lucas Graves, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book, Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. We talked about how fact-checking works, fact-checking presidential debates and reform movements in journalism.

Holan: Let’s talk about the big question first. Why does fact-checking matter?

Graves: Fact-checking matters in a few different ways. The most important one for me is that it represents a new kind of commitment from journalists to try to pierce political rhetoric and hold politicians accountable. It’s a cultural shift in journalism. MORE …

Books for a vacation

With summer coming to an end, it seems appropriate to post this list I wrote up for a friend: my recommendations for books to read on vacation.

  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. Irreverent and funny. A dentist gets his identity stolen and has a run-in with an invented religious.
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fantasy. An adventure story, lovely writing, better than the movies. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit … .”
  • The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Modern Charles Dickens-like tale about an orphan and a stolen painting. Fascinating sub-themes of alcoholism and addiction.
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Nested short stories: historical, romantic, detective, farce and futuristic. The subtle but overarching theme is humanity’s own predation on its members. David Mitchell is a big favorite of mine.

Book Review: ‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks

My most recent book review for the Tampa Bay Times is The Road to Character by David Brooks. I like to watch Brooks and Mark Shields analyze the week’s news on Fridays on PBS Newshour, so I particularly enjoyed reviewing his book.

Coming from a conservative political pundit who writes columns for the New York TimesThe Road to Character is not exactly what you might expect. Don’t look for mentions of the current crop of presidential candidates or hand-wringing over that terrible news on the front page of the newspaper. Instead, David Brooks has written a deeply meditative reflection on personal character and living a life of meaning. To take such a deep dive into the heart of living, Brooks turns away from contemporary society and looks to historical figures — St. Augustine, George Eliot, Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, to name just a few — for his inspiration. Read more …

Book Review: ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of my favorite novelists, so I was happy to review his new book for the Tampa Bay Times. Here’s how it starts:

If you’re looking for a writer who can do any style or genre, then David Mitchell fits the bill.

His 2004 novel Cloud Atlas had it all, to an almost absurd degree: historical fiction, a detective story, modern literary farce and futuristic sci-fi fantasy. Cloud Atlas was more like a series of stitched-together short stories than a novel, but it pursued a unifying thematic thread: how human beings prey upon each other for their own ends, but occasionally do selfless things that point toward freedom.

Cloud Atlas was beguiling enough to capture the attention of Hollywood filmmakers, while Mitchell continued writing new books, including a realistic coming-of-age novel set in 1980s Britain (Black Swan Green) and an unconventional love story set in Nagasaki in 1799 (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Mitchell and his wife even tackled nonfiction, translating the memoir of an autistic Japanese teen, titled The Reason I Jump, into English.

Fans of Mitchell like me couldn’t help but wonder: What’s next?

Read the whole review.

The 2014 Global Fact-checking Summit in London (photo gallery)

In June, I attended the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. About 50 fact-checkers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia attended. The conference was  hosted by the Poynter Institute, organized by Duke University’s Bill Adair (PolitiFact’s founding editor), and funded by the Omidyar Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, craigconnects, the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Full Fact.

The conference was fantastic, and seeing London for the first time was a real treat. Here are a few photos and comments from my trip. Click on the first photo to launch the gallery.