Skip to content

“History is the prediction of the present”

Ethan Bolker sent me an email with the above title and wrote:

That’s the first sentence of a Louis Menand book review in the March 30 New Yorker. It touches on some ideas you play with. If you haven’t seen it, you might put it on your (long?) queue of things to read, maybe blog about.

Menand is great. I took a course from his dad when I was a student at MIT, and it was one of the two best classes I took there. (The other was the legendary 2.70, Introduction to Design, taught by Woodie Flowers.)

I followed the link that Ethan sent me, and I did like the article. I didn’t really learn anything from it, but then again Menand was writing about one of my areas of expertise, so it’s enough that he gave a reasonable and readable and thought-provoking exposition, which he did.

What really struck me, though, was Menand’s style, which seemed looser than anything I’ve seen from him before. For example:

Once, history was a game played with giant billiard balls: wars, revolutions, scientific inventions, the major awards shows. You knocked a combination of these together and you got our world. Then people realized that wars, revolutions, the Grammys, etc., are not explanations at all.

And this:

There is even, to appeal to this taste, the subgenre of counterfactual history, in which Napoleon conquers Russia, or the Beatles give “The Ed Sullivan Show” a pass.


Recent works in the single-phenomenon category include books on bananas, fracking, cod (that’s correct, the fish), the Treaty of Versailles, pepper, the color mauve, and (hmm) the color indigo. (All right, who’s the baddest color?)

Menand has always been a readable writer, but with this new article he jumps on occasion into silliness: territory that I haven’t seen him enter before. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—Lord knows, I get silly all the time—it’s just something new from him.

I wonder if he made a conscious decision to loosen up?

P.S. Since I wrote this post, Menand has published one or two more things in the New Yorker, and he’s returned to his usual sober style. So I don’t know what was up. If any of you know Menand, could you please ask him for me? Thanks.


  1. Martin says:

    Did you ask him? Maybe I am wrong, but if he really did consciously alter his style I can imagine that he’d be more than happy if a reader got it, and explain it. I always wonder if writers do things like planting literary easter eggs, or paying hidden hommage to the birhtday of their favorite writer, etc… stuff like that…

  2. Rahul says:

    When Ravel altered his style in Bolero, people said it was a Brain Tumor. Or so I recall.

Leave a Reply