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Book Review: Out of Order

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It’s impossible not to hear WSHU weekly commentator David Bouchier’s calming, steady, British-inflected voice in the newly released print edition of his recent radio pieces. He calls the collection, his second, which covers September 2017 through January of this year Out of Order: More Irregular Essays, and they give a reader a chance to see how he does it, week after week. The book is instructive not only as cultural criticism on topics of contemporary interest but exemplary on the nature of the familiar essay, a genre said to have begun with the great 19th-century critic William Hazlitt, though for sure Bouchier is much more slyly playful. As he puts it in the preface, he has been accused of “committing humor,” though all he does, he says, is record the facts of our challenging and “ridiculous” times, trying, like Voltaire, to make sense out of nonsense.

Bouchier’s also charmingly shrewd, separating the pieces into two parts: 74 appear under the heading The Human Comedy (hello, Balzac), and then 12 without dates are grouped under the title A Toxic Election Season. All of them illustrate what Bouchier’s favorite philosopher, the Scottish skeptical empiricist David Hume once wrote, that he considered himself “An ambassador from the world of learning to that of conversation.” Bouchier says he sees himself starting a conversation on the air and hoping that listeners will respond in their own way. He adds that by printing the essays, he’d like to claim he’s saving them for posterity though ”so far, posterity has made no such request.”

“Irregular Essays” they are, starting typically with an apparent trivial or catchy observation and then -- with gentle irony and mock exaggeration, a punny title (“Pumping Irony,”), moderating parentheses and asides, soft self-deprecation — moving to explore the absurdities they address – the foolish expectations of intelligent government leaders, over-reliance on technology, the dumbing down of education, the ambiguities and illusions of freedom, the hypocrisies of reform, the silliness and commercialization of many holidays, federal and otherwise, the dangers of unchecked totalitarian behavior, the tyranny of money. Freud’s phrase “Civilization and its Discontents” comes to mind, with Bouchier sounding a muted trumpet call. Throughout, readers will intuit recommendations: Walking, good for thinking; solitude, good for thinking; books, really good for thinking; traditional shopping, a sociable act, as opposed to online”; and having a cat.

One political essay on the obscuring of the difference between fact and fantasy begins this way: “It was a stroke of genius by the framers of the Constitution to schedule the elections immediately after Halloween.” Other sentiments sum up issues cogently in a phrase, as in an essay on the dubious blessings of the automobile where Bouchier suggests the necessity of an Affordable Car Act to help pay for repairs. And then there are the historical facts we either didn’t know or forgot, such as the fact that Columbus did NOT discover America, and that barbershops in the 18th and 19th centuries had musical instruments on the walls “so that clients could entertain themselves while waiting.” The origin of the Barbershop Quartet no doubt he impishly suggests.

Hume, of course, is invoked throughout, along with other favorites: Twain, Orwell, de Tocqueville, Greek and Roman philosophers, and a host of pop and intellectual icons he skewers or celebrates. Read these gems, but keep listening.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.