What I’m Reading: Tunneling to the Past

It’s been a while since I did a “what I’m reading” roundup. (After the newsletter went to once a week, it became harder to slot them in.) But today I wonder if you’re feeling like I am, worried about the state of the world and eager to find answers — or at least a way to escape searching for them — in books.

Some of that means reading work that’s new to me, including “Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict” by Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter and Jacob N. Shapiro.

Covering the war in Gaza has inevitably brought reminders of other conflicts, including the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If, as the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, the battles for control of Mosul and Helmand feel like previous couplets in a long, grim poem that now also includes Gaza City and Rafah. I picked up this book as a way to get a more grounded perspective on those past conflicts and others.

One paragraph from an early chapter of the book seems particularly relevant. (For context, “asymmetric” wars are those fought between groups that are very different in size and capability, often involving guerrilla warfare against a more traditional state military):

In asymmetric wars, the struggle is fundamentally not over territory but over people because the people hold critical information, which is true to a greater extent than in symmetric conflicts because the ability of the stronger side to take advantage of any given piece of information is always very high, and because holding territory is not enough to secure victory. The stronger party in asymmetric conflicts can physically seize territory for a short time whenever it chooses to do so. But holding and administering that territory is another thing altogether — as so many would-be conquerors have learned.

I have also been drawn to reread a book that I first looked at long ago. Not, I think, because I’m longing to rediscover the familiar prose, but because I feel compelled to go back and interrogate the now-unfamiliar version of myself who turned its pages a long time ago.

I first read “The Berlin Novels,” by Christopher Isherwood, the book that inspired the musical “Cabaret,” in college after watching a particularly compelling production of the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (Oddly enough, when I looked it up I realized that it was the precursor to the show currently playing on Broadway, and starred a young Eddie Redmayne, but I had no idea — at the time he was just a guy, rather than an internationally famous star.)

That Fringe production’s staging of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a sweet-sounding folk song that is eventually revealed as a Nazi anthem, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences I’ve ever had at a play. At first, the song was staged as a delicate melody sung by smiling youths, and I remember smiling and wanting to hum along with it, not realizing what turn was coming. Then in a later act, cast members embedded in the audience belted it out in a much uglier, martial tone.

In my memory, they did a Nazi salute and urged the audience to sing along, but I’m not sure if that was the actual choreography or just the general vibe. What I do recall clearly, however, is that I watched another audience member absent-mindedly pick up the small flag that had been placed on a table in front of her and start waving it in time with the music, before suddenly realizing it featured a swastika and dropping it in horror.

It was such a striking emotional experience that I bought “Berlin Stories” to immerse myself further in Isherwood’s stories of Weimar Berlin. Reading it back then, I remember thinking that it was an interesting exploration of ordinary people’s self-delusion and complicity in the rise of the Nazis. But I didn’t see any particular parallels to, or warnings about, my own world. The Germans of the 1930s, I thought, might have absently waved the Nazis in, but that wouldn’t happen today.

Reading it again today feels a little like taking a time machine to confront that past self who was so sure the arc of history was bending toward justice. That’s not to say that I see an imminent return of Nazis to power. But I no longer have the unquestioning faith of my younger days that such risks are in the past.

Sometimes I just want to read for escapism. My night stand currently holds a copy of the script for “Matt & Ben,” a very funny play by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers that launched Kaling’s career back in 2003.

And next to it is “Wives Like Us,” by Plum Sykes, which sweetly eviscerates the foibles of England’s wealthy and fashionable Cotswolds set, as her previous novels, “Bergdorf Blondes” and “The Debutante Divorcée,” did for New York society. Sykes, who also recently wrote this fun piece for the Times Style section about the rise of “executive butlers,” has a Nancy-Mitfordesque ability to skewer a scene like an outsider while still providing the detail that only an insider, or at least near insider, could offer.

It’s been a while, so I want to know what you’ve been reading!

I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) that you recommend to the broader community of Interpreter readers.

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