Book Review: A Great Place to Have a War (Laos)

January 15, 2017

Book Review: A Great Place to Have a War (Laos)

When John F. Kennedy won the election to become the 35th President of the United States, he met with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who repeatedly warned him that the tiny, poverty-stricken country of Laos was the “cork in the bottle. If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and of course Chiang Kai-shek [Taiwan] would go.”

Men who say they fought a secret war for the C.I.A. are still on the run with their families in the mountain jungles of Laos. Credit Tomas Van Houtryve/The International Herald Tribune

If Laos were lost, the outgoing president said, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened to the communists.

In actual fact, at that point Laos was so poor that its single most important source of foreign exchange in 1961 was from collect cable tolls by journalists, warning that Laos was a linchpin in the Communist drive for world dominance.

If it was irrelevant, in the words of one CIA operative, it was a “great place to have a war,” the title of a new and disheartening book on the secret war prosecuted by the CIA that convulsed the country for the next 13 years by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Kurlantzick is the author of three other books on Asia.

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The misperception of Laos’s strategic importance was tragic. Thailand, with its strong Monarchist institutions, was never going to go communist.  British-controlled Malaya, with its majority Malay Muslim population and a communist insurgency centered in a minority of the minority Chinese, was battling an uprising that numerically could never succeed. The Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines was a rural rebellion that could never really touch the Catholic urban population. The domino theory was pretty much nonsense.

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Does America care?

But from such misconceptions tragedies arise. And in the decades that followed, Laos would be visited by a calamity that its population, numbering only 2.1 million in 1961, could hardly bear.  In this important book, Kurlantzick writes in excruciating detail how the decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy would turn the CIA from a spy organization to one whose primary role was covert warfare, involving the agency in ever-more controversial actions across the world.

As Laos became a bigger priority for the agency, “the program would balloon in men and budget. More and more Americans would arrive,” Kurlantzick writes. “It would grow into a massive undertaking run by CIA operatives on the ground, and by the agency and its allies in the Lao capital and back in Washington. The United States would build a vast proxy army of hill tribes in Laos—mostly Hmong but also several other ethnic minorities—that would number in the tens of thousands. Overall, by the end of the war in 1975, some two 200,000 Laotians, both civilians and military, had perished, including at least 30,000 Hmong.

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Nearly twice as many Laotians were wounded by ground fighting and by bombing, and 750,000 of them, Kurlantzick writes, were made refugees. More than 700 Americans died, almost all of them CIA operatives, contractors, or US military men working on loan to the CIA, although many of the American deaths would not be revealed to the public for decades.

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The US dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War, causing untold hardships to the Laotian people. This is the legacy of bot.h Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Today, Laos remains strewn with land mines and other antipersonnel weapons that take the lives and limbs of people almost every day.  A third of the bombs dropped on Laos – famously, more than were dropped on Germany during World War II – were undetonated and continue to explode. Since the Laotian war ended, tens of thousands of Laotians, mostly from hill tribes little removed from the stone age, would become refugees and were flung into a vast diaspora in which few have found anything like success.

By most measures, the CIA’s adventure in Laos was a debacle that virtually destroyed a civilization and was lost when the country basically disappeared into the Vietnamese orbit. But by the CIA’s yardstick, it was an outright success.

William Colby, who became the director of the agency, had strongly advocated shipping arms to Vang Pao, the charismatic Hmong leader, and his men.  Both he and his predecessor, Richard Helms, believed the agency had proven itself in warfare and had held off communism far more effectively than the US military had. Helms contended that the secret war had occupied 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans in Vietnam, Kurlantzick writes.

After 1975, men with experience in the secret Laotian war started up the ladder of success all over the world. That included Richard Holm, a young CIA case officer who would rise to take over the CIA station in Paris. Ted Shackley would go on to become the associate deputy director for covert operations. Daniel Arnold, the last CIA station chief in Vientiane before the communist takeover, became the chief of the evaluations and plans department of the agency’s Directorate of Operations. Dozens more were similarly on track for agency success.

“Many clandestine officers who had worked in Laos brought to other posts a belief that the agency could now handle warfare,” Kurlantzick writes. “Indeed, several of the agency’s own initial classified retrospectives emphasized not only that [Operation] Momentum had been successful in bleeding North Vietnam and prolonging the United States’ ability to fight in Indochina but also that the operation had given the agency war- fighting skills.”

Eventually, the CIA’s adventurism caught up with it. Utah Sen. Frank Church led a committee probe that brought new oversight. Admiral Stansfield Turner, appointed by then President Jimmy Carter, cut 800 agency jobs in what Kurlantzick said was to be “the worst moment in the agency’s history.”

But when Ronald Reagan came into office, that ended the CIA reforms. Bill Casey, Reagan’s wily CIA director, called the Laotian operations a template for pushing back communism. Budgets skyrocketed. Restrictions were removed on covert operations, especially in Afghanistan, then occupied by the Soviet Union. Casey engineered the training and equipping of the mujahedeen with Stinger rockets. Eventually the muj bled the Soviet Union so badly that its Afghan adventure contributed to the ruin of the Soviet economy.

That too ended in disaster, with the mujahedeen turning their guns on each other, virtually wrecking the country so badly that the citizenry welcomed the Taliban because they promised law and order.

The CIA applied those lessons across Central America, bolstering a series of repressive governments in Guatemala and other countries that have resulted in floods of political refugees seeking to get into the United States.

In the 1990s, as in the late 1970s, despite a downsizing, the CIA paramilitary forces continued to expand, operating in Somalia and training Iraqi exiles opposing the Saddam Hussein regime, and training other guerilla armies.

Today intelligence gathering – the original mission of the agency – “is secondary in the agency’s mission to kill enemies of the United States,” Kurlantzick writes. He notes that other reporting revealed in 2015 that the CIA and Special Forces together had created a kind of global super-elite paramilitary force. In early 2015 the agency’s senior paramilitary specialist was made head of the CIA’s entire clandestine service, which is responsible for nearly all overseas intelligence operations.

Today, as Kurlantzick demonstrates, “CIA activities go almost totally unwatched by the public and the media. The strategies used to keep most of the war on terror secret—prohibiting reporters from coming near CIA paramilitary operations, classifying even the most basic details of paramilitary campaigns, relying almost exclusively on technology, contractors, and local forces rather than US ground troops—would have been completely familiar to the CIA operatives running the Laos war.”

A History of U.S. Foreign Affairs in Which Grandiose Ambitions Trump Realism

January 2, 2017

A History of U.S. Foreign Affairs in Which Grandiose Ambitions Trump Realism

Ethics in the Real World–Peter Singer’s Provocative Essays

December 24, 2016

In his influential memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016), J. D. Vance explains why some middle-class Americans turned against Michelle Obama. The first lady, he writes, “tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong, but because we know she’s right.”

It is possible to dislike the philosopher Peter Singer — born in Australia, he teaches at Princeton University — along similar lines. He is right about so many things, and appears to live so much more virtuously than most of us do, that listening him can make you want to tip a turtle on its back or consume all the endangered seafood that’s left because, as a blowhard I know put it, “If we don’t eat it now, there are a billion people right behind us who will.”

Mr. Singer is best known for his book “Animal Liberation” (1975), a founding text of the contemporary animal-rights movement. More recently he has been interested in effective altruism, which asks: How can we use what we have to help others the most?

He takes aim at sins of omission. In his book “The Life You Can Save” (2009) and elsewhere, he has argued that if relatively affluent Westerners do not regularly donate at least a sliver of our incomes to aid agencies, to prevent the unnecessary deaths of millions of people worldwide, we are in the moral wrong. We are complicit in something close to murder.

In his new book, “Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter,” Mr. Singer picks up the topics of animal rights and poverty amelioration and runs quite far with them. But he’s written better and more fully about these issues elsewhere; they are not the primary reason to come to this book.


Peter Singer Credit Tony Phillips

“Ethics in the Real World” comprises short pieces, most of them previously published. This book is interesting because it offers a chance to witness this influential thinker grapple with more offbeat questions.

Among the essay titles here: “Should Adult Sibling Incest Be a Crime?”; “Is It O.K. to Cheat at Football?”; “Tiger Mothers or Elephant Mothers?”; “Rights for Robots?”; and “Kidneys for Sale?” This book is the equivalent of a moral news conference, or a particularly good Terry Gross interview.

Its informal quality is tonic. I’m reminded of a comment by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, who said he would trade half of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” for an interview with him, and “all of ‘Adam Bede’ for the same with George Eliot.”

The first thing that needs to be said about “Ethics in the Real World” is that the writing is mostly dishwater gray. Mr. Singer seems to regard wit as immoral adornment. He picks up his topics as if they were heavy rocks, hauls them a few feet, and drops them, sometimes on our toes. His abstemious style made me long for a despairing wisecrack.

What carries you is the quality of his thought. He is persuasive on so many topics that he makes you wish we could turn the world off, then on again, in an attempt to reset it.

He is an ardent critic of religion. About the notion, strong in my own childhood, that we were born with original sin because Eve flouted God’s decree against eating from the tree of knowledge, he writes: “This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies, firstly, that knowledge is a bad thing, secondly, that disobeying god’s will is the greatest sin of all, and thirdly, that children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may be justly punished for them.”

He speaks loudly on behalf of tolerance. He believes we should allow for three categories on passports and other documents: “male, female, and indeterminate.” He further argues that the world would be a better place if humans were not so often asked to proclaim their sex on forms.

He leans in favor of permitting adult incest because for him, an essential question is always this one: “When someone proposes making something a criminal offense, we should always ask: who is harmed?”

In one of my favorite passages, he zeros in on those who pay many millions of dollars for paintings while people are starving. The art critic in him emerges.

Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “Why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”

His bottom line: “In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing.”

There is an essay about how to keep a New Year’s resolution. In another he denounces the trend, seen in some Manhattan restaurants and bars, toward decorating with Soviet-era kitsch, including images of Stalin. At least he writes, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no Nazi-themed restaurant in New York; nor is there a Gestapo or SS bar.”

Late in this book, Mr. Singer reports that one of his daughters once asked him, during a car ride, “Would you rather that we were clever or that we were happy?”

Mr. Singer finds moral behavior to be its own kind of cleverness, and certainly happy-making.

NY Times Book Review: The Story of Two Researchers who changed how we think about the way we think

December 20, 2016

Friendship That Changed Our Minds–Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman
By Michael Lewis
362 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $28.95.

In the fall of 1969, behind the closed door of an otherwise empty seminar room at Hebrew University, two psychologists began a collaboration that would upend the understanding of human behavior. Those first conversations were filled with uproarious laughter and occasional shouting, in a jumble of Hebrew and English, which could sometimes be heard from the hallway.

When it came time for the two professors to write-up their papers, they would sit next to each other at a single typewriter. “We were sharing a mind,” one would say later. They flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on their initial paper and alternated thereafter. The two names were Amos Tversky — the winner of that coin flip — and Daniel Kahneman.

Their work revealed previously undiscovered patterns of human irrationality: the ways that our minds consistently fool us and the steps we can take, at least some of the time, to avoid being fooled. Kahneman and Tversky used the word “heuristics” to describe the rules of thumb that often lead people astray. One such rule is the “halo effect,” in which thinking about one positive attribute of a person or thing causes observers to perceive other strengths that aren’t really there. Another is “representativeness,” which leads people to see cause and effect — to see a “narrative” — where they should instead accept uncertainty or randomness.

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The Late Amos Tversky and DanielKahneman reordered “economics by exposing the folly of economists’ belief in an unconsciously rational human mind.”–David Leonhardt

The research of Kahneman and Tversky has become some of the most influential social science of the past century. It has helped to reorder economics by exposing the folly of economists’ belief in an unconsciously rational human mind. The work has also led to advances in medical diagnosis and patient behavior. It has affected eating habits, cellphone use by drivers, retirement savings and many other areas.

The work is also full of practical little ideas. “No one ever made a decision because of a number,” Kahneman has said. “They need a story.” Or Tversky’s theory of socializing: Because stinginess and generosity are both contagious, and because behaving generously makes you happier, surround yourself with generous people.

One of the clearest places to see their work’s impact, although surely not the most important, is professional sports. Team executives have realized that some of their long-held assumptions about what makes a great athlete or a winning strategy turn out to be wrong. And they have adjusted. The adjustments have not always worked, and many of the old beliefs — say, the importance of fielding skill among catchers in baseball — contain wisdom. Yet the reformist movement has had many more wins than losses. One reformer is Theo Epstein, the executive who has overseen the demise of mythical curses on both the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

The changes in sports are known as the Moneyball revolution, after the title of a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, about the low-budget success of the Oakland Athletics. One review of “Moneyball” particularly caught Lewis’s eye, because it offered a criticism that had not occurred to him. Writing in The New Republic, two academics — Richard Thaler, an economist who had helped overthrow his field’s hyperrationality, and Cass Sunstein, a law professor — argued that Lewis had missed a larger story: The success of the A’s could trace its intellectual roots not only through the world of baseball’s analytical geeks but also back to the work of Kahneman and Tversky.

“Until that moment I don’t believe I’d ever heard of either Kahneman or Tversky,” Lewis now writes. “My book wasn’t original. It was simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among others, me.” Lewis set about learning more about the psychologists, and the result is his latest book, “The Undoing Project,” a joint biography of Kahneman and Tversky, and a discussion of their ideas and complex relationship.

Lewis is the ideal teller of the story. Dating to his 1989 debut, “Liar’s Poker,” about the Wall Street boom of that decade, he has displayed a rare combination for a writer. He immerses himself in big ideas — about finance, technology, sports and, ultimately, the human condition — and then explains them to readers with sophistication and clarity. But he is also a vastly better raconteur than most other writers playing the explication game. You laugh when you read his books. You see his protagonists in three dimensions — deeply likable, but also flawed, just like most of your friends and family.

Kahneman and Tversky are no longer obscure figures, thanks in part to Kahneman’s best-selling “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Yet their story is still not well-known. They were both grandsons of rabbis from Eastern Europe, and both atheists. They were deeply affected by their service in the Israeli military — including in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after they had already established themselves as academics. The experiences helped make Kahneman far more practical than he otherwise might have been, because he understood that psychology could save, or cost, lives.

For Tversky, military service sharpened the brazenness that became crucial to their collaboration. At one time, against the orders of a superior, he rushed over to a fellow soldier who had collapsed near an unexploded grenade and pulled the soldier to safety. “Once I did that,” he later told a friend, “I felt obliged to keep this image of hero.” His confidence and brilliance combined to make for a cutting sense of humor. After he had given a talk, an English statistician approached him and said, “I don’t usually like Jews, but I like you.” Tversky responded, “I usually like Englishmen, but I don’t like you.”

Tversky’s panache made him the more prominent of the pair, by a considerable margin, while they were doing their work. The gap aggravated tensions that existed between the two men despite what Lewis describes as a platonic love between them. Many of today’s readers, of course, know only Kahneman’s name. The back story is tragically affecting: Tversky died of cancer in 1996, at the age of 59. He received the diagnosis just after he and Kahneman had severed their friendship, only to repair it in Tversky’s last months.

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For all of the personal anguish that their differences created, those differences also fueled their accomplishments. Tversky’s boldness helped the pair to take on strongly held beliefs in one field after another. Kahneman’s humility and insecurity were just as important to their success. He was unsparingly self-critical, which allowed him to understand his own mental errors — and, by extension, to diagnose widespread human errors that others had missed. Kahneman came to realize that when he was faced with results from studying 40 subjects, a typical sample in psychology, his instinct was to devise an explanation for the results. In truth, the most likely explanation was statistical noise.

If you want to conduct your own experiment along these lines, ask someone to write down the results of a hypothetical sequence of 20 coin flips. Then ask the person to flip a coin 20 times and write down the results. The actual flips will almost certainly contain long streaks of only heads or tails — the sort of streaks that people don’t think a random coin produces on its own. This kind of misconception leads us to misanalyze all sorts of situations, in business, politics and everyday life. Lewis, describing one of Kahneman and Tversky’s real-life disciples, writes, “He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.”

That notion — reflected in the book’s title — is one of the most important that Lewis offers, especially now. Many people attracted to Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas have a little bit of Amos Tversky’s brashness in them. They (in fairness, I should say “we”) get some enjoyment from puncturing shibboleths with data and observation. As a result, they are often seen as arrogant and sometimes are indeed arrogant.

I read “The Undoing Project” during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath. In many ways, the campaign’s result and its winner represented the antitheses of Kahneman and Tversky’s work. The election was a victory for gut instinct over empiricism, for cynicism over reason.

But the full message of Kahneman and Tversky’s work, I think, is more subtle than it often seems — and even more important in the new political world than the old. The human species is fantastically complex and often doesn’t know what it is doing. The search for a better understanding of our behavior is vital. It’s also difficult, never-ending and still very much worth the struggle.

The best economics books of 2016

December 19, 2016

The best economics books of 2016

by Robert

Okay, I should have headlined it “My favorite economics books of 2016.” There surely are many good books that I missed. Still, the four below share certain appealing characteristics. They tell us stuff we don’t know, which alters our view of the world. They are all deeply researched and reported. They’re clearly written. For your dedicated economics wonk or history buff, any of them would make a fine holiday gift. (With the exception of the Herbert Hoover book, I have written about all of them previously.)

Here they are:

●“The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War,” by Robert J. Gordon, Princeton University Press, 762 pages.

Gordon, a highly respected economist at Northwestern University, has produced what will endure as a masterpiece. It traces how new technologies have transformed everyday living. Think indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, air travel, computers and pharmaceuticals. An example: air conditioning. Without it, “we wouldn’t have Las Vegas, or Miami, Houston or Los Angeles,” gushed Consumer Reports in 1986. But Gordon’s technological journey makes him pessimistic about the future. He thinks the easy gains have occurred and won’t soon be repeated. He is skeptical about the value of the Internet.

●“An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy,” by Marc Levinson, Basic Books, 336 pages.

Levinson, an economist and ex-journalist (Newsweek, the Economist), has the virtues of both — an eye for detail and an understanding of the broader picture. He reaches a conclusion similar to Gordon’s but by a different route. His hypothesis is simple: The first 25 years after World War II, characterized by rapid economic growth around the world, was a unique event, driven by reconstruction from the war and pent-up demand. Economists felt they could control growth, raising living standards and avoiding severe business cycles. Their frantic efforts to fulfill this promise destabilized economies around the world.
 ●“The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan,” by Sebastian Mallaby, Penguin Press, 800 pages.Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006, was a consequential public figure who merits a comprehensive biography. Mallaby, a skilled financial writer and journalist (the Economist, The Washington Post), provides just that. Mallaby punctures many Greenspan cliches. Greenspan was more pragmatist than ideologue, says Mallaby; otherwise, he could not have survived so long in Washington. He also understood financial markets better than most other economists and Fed officials. Still, Mallaby faults Greenspan for not raising interest rates sooner early in the new century — a step, Mallaby argues, that could have softened or averted the 2008-09 financial crisis.

● “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency,” by Charles Rappleye, Simon & Schuster, 576 pages.

We all “know” that Hoover’s ineptness and indifference deepened the Great Depression. But what if what we know isn’t true? It isn’t, argues Rappleye, a popular historian who understands (and demystifies) economics and also writes well. This is no whitewash. Rappleye says that, in public, Hoover was dour and distant. With poor political skills, he alienated many in Congress. He was often falsely optimistic. But there was another Hoover who fought the Depression by shoring up wages, sponsoring public works and supporting a collapsing banking system. That these measures failed was not for lack of trying. It was a true tragedy.

These books are worth the time — even if you’re not an economics wonk.

Meeting the Greats in ‘Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers’

December 3, 2016

James Baldwin

Edited by Graydon Carter
424 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $20.

A good working assumption, if you are a struggling young writer, dreaming of laurels but subsisting on lentils, is that those successful writers you envy are all off somewhere together, Champagne-drunk at a party to which your invitation has mysteriously not arrived.

“Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers,” a collection of pieces from the magazine’s modern incarnation, offers little to disprove this theory. It is not only that the characters you will meet over the course of 400-some pages and 43 articles were no strangers to the cocktails-at-7 circuit (and many of them on close personal terms with the cocktails themselves). They also drank, fought, fawned and flirted with and among one another. The writer’s life is, in part, a vigilant prowl for characters. (“This being the state capital, we had all the state institutions in Jackson — blind, deaf and dumb, insane,” Eudora Welty said in praise of her Mississippi hometown in a 1999 profile by Willie Morris. “Made for good characters.”) As it happens, many of those writers turn out also to be good material themselves.

Accordingly, this anthology reads less like a worshipful or sententious exploration of the art of writing, and more like a highbrow scandal sheet — which, in the best way, Vanity Fair is. (It is an institution in and of itself, and while blindness, deafness and mutism are not often in evidence, insanity is.) It is no slight to say that the gang’s all here — and so, tantalizingly enough, is the gossip. For Toni Morrison’s account of Gabriel García Márquez’s thoughts on Viagra, turn to Page 169.

There are enough gems of this trivially miscellaneous kind to recommend “Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers” on this front alone, at least to any reader invested in the foibles of the great and infamous. And there are worse ways to read it than by skipping from leavening detail to leavening detail, the “bits” that any magazine writer knows must lard a finished piece. Vanity Fair has called upon some of the most gimlet-eyed to supply them over the course of its history: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Wolcott, Patricia Bosworth and Michael Lewis for starters, all of whom are represented in this volume. (In its original incarnation, published in the United States between 1913 and 1936, the magazine famously employed Dorothy Parker and Clare Boothe Luce, both of whom receive tributes here. Luce, then Clare Boothe Brokaw, apparently had an ermine toilet-seat cover.)

Telling such tales can be dangerous — so learns Truman Capote, whose fall from grace when his short story “La Côte Basque, 1965” aired the secrets of his “swans” and patronesses is retold here by Sam Kashner — but it’s also fun. To know that Jacqueline Susann, best-selling author of “Valley of the Dolls,” upholstered her office walls in pink patent leather, commissioned a portrait of her poodle for the side of her Cadillac Eldorado and fervently believed she would win the Nobel Prize is nothing short of life-affirming, especially when followed by Arthur Miller’s grim diagnosis of the durability of anti-Semitism or William Styron’s cleareyed evocation of his own, nearly suicidal depression. (His essay, which ran in Vanity Fair in 1989, eventually became the book “Darkness Visible.”)

The selection was edited by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor since 1992, and most of the choices were published during his tenure at the magazine — though a handful date from 1983, when the magazine was relaunched by Condé Nast, and through the ’80s. (A separate volume, “Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells,” also edited by Carter and published in 2014, rounds up writing from the magazine’s earlier iteration.) The mix leans heavily on the biggest names (subject, author or both) and not always to its advantage. Many of the pieces included here feel inescapably occasional, their momentary relevance faded by the passage of time. Some are the brief tributes that fill out the mix of magazines but stand uneasily alone; a few are no longer than a paragraph.

But there are several appreciations worth the price of admission, including those of writers whose due is not always freely given. (Of these: Michael Callahan on the “Peyton Place” author Grace Metalious, and Todd S. Purdum on the best-selling juggernaut James Patterson, as much a C.E.O. of a doorstop-thriller factory as a writer conventionally defined.)

Then there is Elizabeth Bishop’s sensitive biographical sketch of her friend the poet Marianne Moore (and her ever-present mother), which was found among her papers at her death and edited for publication by her longtime editor, Robert Giroux. It includes, by way of plot, an account of a larcenous elephant haircut (for the repair of an elephant-hair bracelet) and the rescue, by sailors, of Miss Moore’s flyaway hairpins on a roller coaster; but more important, it includes some lovely examples of Bishop’s natural (and naturalist) acuity. “Somehow, under all the subaqueous pressure” of her environment, Bishop wrote, “Marianne rose triumphant, or rather her voice did, in a lively, unceasing jet of shining bubbles.”

Dip rather than dive, and such wellsprings can be found throughout “Writers on Writers,” which, ever the graceful host, offers up its own scattered jets of shining bubbles. More Champagne?