Partial list off the top of my head:
The Metaphysical Club, by Menand. The first couple times I read this, missed or glossed over the nihilism and relativism (if those can be said to be substantially different) peeking out from every page. The stories told are so fascinating, the turnings of culture pivoting on the sins and limitations of so few minds while we many sleep – gripping stuff. And this book pointed out trailheads to a number of topics I’ve read more about since, I owe it thanks for that.
But, ultimately, Menand is a nihilist. His heart seems to wish there were meaning, even the sort of meaning that boils down to a raw exercise of personal power. He’s too smart to actually believe it, however, so I’m left only with his slick, beautifully written evasiness whenever he might wander near anything like an ultimate ‘why’.
Other writings reveal him as a Marxist apologist. Like Agent Smith defending himself to the Cookie Girl, old Karl, Menand claims, is not that bad! An avuncular adulterer, maybe! And who isn’t, these days? Not, as one reading Marx himself would conclude, the purveyor of a world view within which slaughtering 100 million or so unarmed children, women and men is not *necessarily* a bad thing, in, fact, could be required, if it moves the ball forward on the right side of History. Nihilism dressed as Relativism lurking behind the will to power masquerading as concern for the Masses.
In a similar way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is like a drug for a Great Books guy – the stories he tells, the points he makes, are blood-boilingly true – that, ultimately runs aground on the same question of ‘why’. Sure, these idiots are shoving everything that makes America and the West unique, wonderful and loveable down the memory hole – and? That’s a bad thing because? Just as people don’t describe our culture as Christendom anymore, Bloom wants us to love and defend results, it seems, without being making a stand for the cause of those results. It’s ultimately turtles all the way down.
Very fun read many years ago, but deeply unsatisfying today.
A bunch of old SciFi. It’s a little tragic to think how many of the books I just LOVED as a kid/young adult that largely appall me now. A few, such a Slan and Stranger in a Strange Land I read when I was older, and so realized I’d need to ignore a lot of fundamental looniness to enjoy them. Same old same old – some elect will come to save/exterminate all us peons for our own not too well defined good. Innocents dying? Omelette/eggs. Even if you don’t share a belief in a Divine Savior, that plotline is just old. Can we stop with stories that beat the drum for one’s own puffed-up self opinion (of *course* you’re among the elect! Who could doubt it? All that purges and guillotines stuff is in the past!) or for people who imagine they’d be doing you a favor if they just cut to the chase and killed you and yours?
Here are a couple I loved when I read them as a youngster, then later had ‘wait a minute!’ moments on. I still sort of like them with a childish affection, mostly, but, man, are they silly:
Clarke’s Childhood’s End. See comments above. In this story, Clarke goes with the saviors who, you know, kill us all. Well, stand by with their ever so noble and sympathetic feelings while we all – except for the elect! – die like animals at an evaporated watering hole. It’s all for the best!
Clarke’s 2001. This time, the Chosen One come back to save us puny humans from ourselves by snuffing out our silly nukes. Who hasn’t wished our silly nukes would get snuffed out, so that we could return to the good old days before nukes when everyone treated each other as brothers and treaded lightly upon Mother Gaia? (Not loving MAD, but nukes aren’t really the fundamental problem.)
Wow, picking on Clarke here, but there are others suffering from the same shortcomings, although generally in a less hippy-dippy fashion than Clarke. A lot of Asimov, including the much-loved (by me, at least) Foundation series kind of loses it at the intersection of story and philosophy. But I’ll stop here for today. Maybe more later.
Then, will need to do the reverse: books I didn’t like when I first read them, but now love. Preview: really didn’t see what the fuss about Lord of the Rings was when I first read it in high school. My future wife set me straight on that. Probably why she’s my wife.