Confront head-on our white racist sh*t: Readings

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The first step is admitting ignorance. The next step is shutting up and listening, reading, educating yourself. I am late to compiling a list of some of the things I’ve read in the last couple of years to stumble out of the ignorance and blindness I wasn’t even aware of. I consider myself aware, intelligent, worldly, observant – so it is not as though everything I have learned about race, the construction of race as an oppressive tool, white privilege, inequality, etc. was new – but it doesn’t matter what or how much I knew or know. It needs to be repeated, shared, discussed, and worked on – truly confronted –if ever true equality is to be achieved. We all have so much work to do.

In no particular order, here are books – by no means even close to an exhaustive list – that should be not just consumed but actively studied and carefully considered. I am in no way qualified to guide anyone’s education or action, but it feels like a small thing I can at least share based on my compulsive reading habit. What I have found in the breadth of my reading across an incomprehensible range of topics is that race, racism and inequality is woven into the fabric of… everything. This is why it’s difficult for people, particularly the most well-meaning, to see how pervasive racism is.

There are so, so, so many more voices, people, stories, subjects, books, tv shows, films, histories, and perspectives out there. Here’s a great list from Ibram X. Kendi (some overlap between this list and mine); my list includes the small handful I can start with and amplify (well, to the tiny degree I can amplify anything) and confront and combat my own inexhaustible ignorance.

To be sure, though, reading isn’t enough – it won’t cure anything. I feel embarrassed almost that I am compiling a list — as though that will contribute anything. It feels like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but to build understanding, you have to start somewhere.

Books

*So You Want to Talk About RaceIjeoma Oluo

Essential.

“Race has also become alive. Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.”

*Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About RaceReni Eddo-Lodge

These are structural, systemic issues – you can’t even call them issues at this point because the entire system itself is racist. You don’t have to be an overt racist to be part of, and mindlessly support and benefit from, that racist system.

“We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people.”

“Structural racism is never a case of innocent and pure, persecuted people of colour versus white people intent on evil and malice. Rather, it is about how Britain’s relationship with race infects and distorts equal opportunity. I think that we placate ourselves with the fallacy of meritocracy by insisting that we just don’t see race. This makes us feel progressive. But this claim to not see race is tantamount to compulsory assimilation. My blackness has been politicised against my will, but I don’t want it wilfully ignored in an effort to instil some sort of precarious, false harmony. And, though many placate themselves with the colour-blindness lie, the aforementioned drastic differences in life chances along race lines show that while it might be being preached by our institutions, it’s not being practised.”

*The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMichelle Alexander

 The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet as we shall see in the pages that follow, racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”

*At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black PowerDanielle L McGuire 

“The brutal rape of Recy Taylor in 1944, and the sexual exploitation of thousands of other black women in the United States before and after the Civil War, is a central part of our history that has been grossly understated and unacknowledged for far too long. Though it may seem unnecessary, even lurid, to examine the details of sexual violence, it is crucial that we hear the testimonies black women offered at the time.”

Sexual violence committed against black women by white men is one of the brutalities we don’t think about or discuss – but it is a central, if hidden, ritualized terror that accompanies and defines explicit racism and oppression.

“As a kind of cultural narrative, rumors of rape and sexualized violence had enormous symbolic power and political potency. Whites used outrageous racial rumors and rape scares to justify strengthening segregation and white supremacy. Meanwhile the stories of sexual subjugation and racial terror that circulated among African Americans exposed white hypocrisy about interracial sex and spurred demands for equal justice and bodily integrity.”

*Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of BlacknessSimone Browne

An insightful and thought-provoking look at surveillance – and how “race continues to structure surveillance practices”. Very relevant thoughts on the supposed neutrality of surveillance technologies and the questions that arise in their application. It’s timely in any case given the widespread adoption of surveillance (much discussion on loss of privacy and the “dataification” of all people, but examined through different lenses, i.e., race, gender, disability, it takes on deeper questions of control versus controlled.

“Racializing surveillance is a technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a “power to define what is in or out of place.””

“Where public spaces are shaped for and by whiteness, some acts in public are abnormalized by way of racializing surveillance and then coded for disciplinary measures that are punitive in their effects.”

“Understanding how biometric information technologies are rationalized through industry specification and popular entertainment provides a means to falsify the idea that certain surveillance technologies and their application are always neutral regarding race, gender, disability, and other categories of determination and their intersections. Examining biometric practices and surveillance in this way is instructive. It invites us to understand the histories and the social relations that form part of the very conditions that enable these technologies.”

“These cases of flying while black reveal the ways in which certain bodies, particularly those of black women, often get taken up as publicly available for scrutiny and inspection, and also get marked as more threatening, unruly, and, in the words of the US Airways official to DeShon Marman, “not like everyone else.””

*White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo

“In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.”

“We” – the white progressive, self-proclaimed “ally”—are one of the biggest problems/barriers of all.

“These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist. This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.”

“Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

 “Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

*The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

LET US BE REMINDED that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this: Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.”

“Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press; a little pseudo-success; the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence. Maintain, at all costs, silence.”

*The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y Davis, Cornel West and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America TodayWahneema Lubiano, editor

“The United States is not just the domicile of a historically specific form of racial oppression, but it sustains itself as a structure through that oppression.”

*A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra BlandDaMaris B Hill

*Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the PresentHarriet A Washington

“The white physicians who were trained by peering at, ridiculing, and practicing upon the captive bodies of African Americans had been taught to view these bodies as expendable. When loosed upon the world as practitioners, they continued to view African Americans as subjects rather than as patients. Graduate physicians utilized unwilling blacks to display their therapeutic prowess or as raw material for research papers and surgical reputations.”

*Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of LibertyDorothy Roberts

A powerful and important account about all the ways in which “the denial of Black reproductive autonomy serves the interests of white supremacy”.

“The dominant view of liberty reserves most of its protection only for the most privileged members of society. This approach superimposes liberty on an already unjust social structure, which it seeks to preserve against unwarranted government interference. Liberty protects all citizens’ choices from the most direct and egregious abuses of government power, but it does nothing to dismantle social arrangements that make it impossible for some people to make a choice in the first place. Liberty guards against government intrusion; it does not guarantee social justice.”

*Thick: And Other EssaysTressie McMillan Cottom

“White voters allowed Barack Obama to become an idea and a president because he was a fundamental projection of the paradox that defines them as white. I almost forgot once. Old trees and new whites are a seduction. But my soul remembers my grandmother’s memories. It is imperative that one knows one’s whites.”

Essays on beauty “standards” and who gets to define those standards, competence “standards”, again – who defines them, and sexual violence and the irrational and oppressive obsession with assigning personal responsibility to individuals (particularly black women) for their victimization (e.g., “It was then that I learned that black girls like me can never truly be victims of sexual predators. And that the men in my life were also men in the world. Men can be your cousin, men can be Mike Tyson, and men can be both of them at the same time.”)

This selection of essays produced unexpected levels of emotion as I read it, perhaps because it succinctly collects and describes the egregious and outrageous injustices that make up daily life for most black girls and women for every single aspect of their lives across their entire lifespan.

“As long as the beautiful people are white, what is beautiful at any given time can be renegotiated without redistributing capital from white to nonwhite people.”

“When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”

“When white feminists catalogue how beauty standards over time have changed, from the “curvier” Marilyn Monroe to the skeletal Twiggy to the synthetic-athletic Pamela Anderson, their archetypes belie beauty’s true function: whiteness. Whiteness exists as a response to blackness. Whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. It would stand to reason that beauty’s ultimate function is to exclude blackness. That beauty also violently conditions white women and symbolically precludes the existence of gender nonconforming people is a bonus.”

*The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s HouseAudre Lorde

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.

Simone de Beauvoir once said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

*Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminismbell hooks

“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women. We are rarely recognized as a group separate and distinct from black men, or as a present part of the larger group “women” in this culture.”

“Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation. Frequently observers of the black female experience confuse these issues.”

“Like Susan Brownmiller, most people tend to see devaluation of black womanhood as occurring only in the context of slavery. In actuality, sexual exploitation of black women continued long after slavery ended and was institutionalized by other oppressive practices. Devaluation of black womanhood after slavery ended was a conscious, deliberate effort on the part of whites to sabotage mounting black female self-confidence and self-respect.”

*Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practicebell hooks

*The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationIsabel Wilkerson

“The people did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such. Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system. The Jim Crow regime persisted from the 1880s to the 1960s, some eighty years, the average life span of a fairly healthy man. It afflicted the lives of at least four generations and would not die without bloodshed, as the people who left the South foresaw. Over time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s. But more remarkably, it was the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free.”

*The Cornel West ReaderCornel West

“Black strivings are the creative and complex products of the terrifying African encounter with the absurd in America—and the absurd as America. Like any other group of human beings, black people forged ways of life and ways of struggle under circumstances not of their own choosing.”

*Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a MovementAngela Y Davis

“The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework.”

“Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism—I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right? It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, and racism, and colonialism, and postcolonialities, and ability, and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognize a range of connections among discourses, and institutions, and identities, and ideologies that we often tend to consider separately.”

*Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this.”

*Separate: The Story of Plessy v Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to SegregationSteve Luxenberg

All of this will sound too painfully familiar and repetitive.

“The ruling in Plessy drew little attention at the time, but its baneful effects lasted longer than any other civil rights decision in American history. It gave legal cover to an increasingly pernicious series of discriminatory laws in the first half of the twentieth century. Under the banner of keeping the races apart, much of white America stood silent as black Americans suffered beatings, assaults, and murders.”

“He had listened as Douglass had exhorted the delegates to “make every organized protest against the wrongs inflicted on them.” Throughout his long career, the brilliant orator’s message had been strongly consistent: We must act now, we cannot wait, whites will always tell us that the time is not right.”

There is also so much fiction and poetry that should be included. Here are just a few things I have recently read or must-read classics, but there’s so very much more that absolutely must be explored.

*The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

*Anything at all by James Baldwin

*Magical NegroMorgan Parker

*BelovedToni Morrison

*Their Eyes Were Watching GodZora Neale Hurston

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Said and read – May 2020

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“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Said and read – March 2019

Standard

We know how difficult it is to execute excellence in art (although I am convinced that for the true genius the things that look difficult to us are easy and effortless for him). But while we recognize quality by its rareness, on the other hand we consistently moan about the absence of quality from the hearts and minds of the masses. We talk about a crisis in literacy; we are upset and disquieted about pop art; we talk about airport sculpture; we are unnerved, and legitimately so, about the sensational play as opposed to the sensitive one. Each of us has a group of phrases that identify for us the mediocre in an art form. I sometimes wonder if we really and truly mean it. Do we really mean that the world is the poorer because too few appreciate the finer things? Suppose we did live in a world in which people chatted about Descartes and Kant and Lichtenstein in McDonald’s. Suppose Twelfth Night was on the best-seller list. Would we be happy? Or would we decide that since everybody appreciated it, maybe it wasn’t any good? Or maybe if the artist himself had not begged for his life—begged and struggled through poverty, perhaps on into death—perhaps his art wasn’t any good. There seems to have been an enormous amount of comfort taken in some quarters (in print and in conversation) that when thousands and thousands of people stood in line to see the Picasso show, only 4 or 5 percent of the people who saw it really knew what they were seeing.” – The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

It may be March, and we have less snow and ice and a little bit more light each day… but it’s still March, so there is still some snow and ice and darkness. As I had hoped, I have managed a bit more reading in March, but that’s mostly because I had to travel more than usual. I set aside travel time (dead time on planes, trains, buses) for reading, even if I have wifi access (thanks, Norwegian!). It still feels very fragmented, though, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t more poetry books available as e-books and even more challenging that I don’t have as much time as usual to seek out poetry in non-English languages, which would probably be the thing I would love most in the world to read now. It did, after all, used to be a major pastime to wander through bookstores in foreign lands seeking original-language poetry books. But bookstores seem fewer and far between, and my time to seek them out seems more limited.

In February and March, I did a whole lot of research to inform and narrow down my next thesis project, but it turns out it was probably all for nothing. Coursework in my current degree program is about to end, but despite my poor attendance, I still feel quite burned out, i.e. “please just end now“. I have kept up with my studies, assignments and readings except for one key class, which required group work that I could not participate in… so I am pretty sure I am going to fail. (Will it surprise you that I don’t include the text “Learning Statistics with R” in this list of good stuff?) And I wish I could say I cared. Truthfully, I do care, but I have been slightly overextended this term, and I have to keep telling myself, “This really does not matter.” After all, I am a middle-aged woman who already has a career and pretty much all the things I want and need; taking on more formal education has been a luxury from the beginning. It has not been something required for career progression and has no bearing on my future. So the strange guilt-trip scolding kind of stuff I get from the administration regarding attendance is misplaced, taking me back to much-hated childhood… but for god’s sake, I am not a child.

Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March:

What strikes me most about my reading in March is that I read a few things I felt excited about, thinking they would be engrossing. But then they just were not quite what I hoped for. Not that they posed no topics for reflection or interesting insights… just that they were not the gripping accounts of … whatever they were about… that I expected. But that is the danger of ever expecting anything, right?

Is it any small wonder, then, that the tactics critics have devised to shake the legacy of close, critical, or useless reading as the sine qua non of literary culture betray a whiff of desperation?” –Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar AmericaMerve Emre

Highly recommended

*Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for MenCaroline Criado Perez

I was beyond excited to read this book. I think and write a lot about women fighting to find the space and oxygen in a male-dominated world just to make their thoughts known, let alone contribute in a significant way (without being ignored, gaslit, demeaned, diminished, interrupted or having credit stolen away). What Criado Perez has done in her much-anticipated book, Invisible Women, is take data – of the absence of it – to illustrate how neglected women really are in pretty much every public sphere. Whether it is in infrastructure and transportation planning, healthcare and medical research, the law and its application, public safety, women are insidiously invisible – and even women have been blind to how little their existence matters in considering, for example, everything from drug development and dosage recommendations to the design of backpacks or seatbelts. In every possible way, society is built around the “norm”, which is the man. The male is the default position, and despite making up more than half of the population, the woman is the outlier, leading to a massive gender-based data gap in almost literally every subject. And even in female-only areas, such as menstruation and pregnancy, research is skewed, non-existent or dismissed as less important.

I read this book and found myself getting angrier and angrier, wanting to scream before wanting to act. But where to start acting? I am running up against some of the challenges of data collection myself at the moment – not so much having to do with gender as it has to do with the limitations of being within a university system. As is pointed out throughout academia and the “replicability crisis” within academia, we are never getting representative results in our work because we use and have access to very limited groups of subjects, particularly as students ourselves, i.e. we have access to other students, who are all relatively affluent, educated to a certain level, generally within a certain age range. This limits not only what results we get but what kinds of questions we can ask. I can’t, for example, ask a group of young master’s degree students how they feel about or experience “geriatric pregnancy”, can I? So very few studies are done on this subject.

Consider (and then read the whole book for yourself, please):

These white men have in common the following opinions: that identity politics is only identity politics when it’s about race or sex; that race and sex have nothing to do with ‘wider’ issues like ‘the economy’; that it is ‘narrow’ to specifically address the concerns of female voters and voters of colour; and that working class means white working-class men. Incidentally, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the coal mining industry, which during the 2016 election became the shibboleth for (implicitly male) working-class jobs, provides 53,420 jobs in total, at a median annual wage of $59,380.89 Compare this to the majority female 924,640-strong cleaning and housekeeper workforce, whose median annual income is $21,820. So who’s the real working class? These white men also have in common that they are white men. And I labour this point because it is exactly their whiteness and maleness that caused them to seriously vocalise the logical absurdity that identities exist only for those who happen not to be white or male. When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too. Pierre Bourdieu wrote in 1977 that ‘what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition’. Whiteness and maleness are silent precisely because they do not need to be vocalised. Whiteness and maleness are implicit. They are unquestioned. They are the default. And this reality is inescapable for anyone whose identity does not go without saying, for anyone whose needs and perspective are routinely forgotten.

*Anything by Vicki Feaver

A poet I had not previously heard of, but stumbled upon in February. It is not consistently revelatory; I don’t love everything, but Feaver has a few poems that speak to me and has a unique style overall.

Good – really good

*The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison

I had hoped that I would enjoy this Toni Morrison collection more than I did, but that’s not to say that I didn’t get a great deal from reading it. It’s possible that it was just slightly more challenging than what I needed at the time I chose to read it.

Morrison makes some cutting and powerful points (no surprise) that are timely and evergreen simultaneously:

The loudest voices are urging those already living in day-to-day dread to think of the future in military terms—as a cause for and expression of war. We are being bullied into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.”

In reading Morrison’s response to the construction of “otherness” and “internal enemies”, which has never been more timely, I think back to last month when I wrote about Erich Fromm’s insistence that “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Morrison describes exactly how Fromm’s “resistance against” erodes, slowly, which we are witnessing day after day right now:

LET US BE REMINDED that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this: Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.

It is painful because it is searingly true:

Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press; a little pseudo-success; the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence. Maintain, at all costs, silence.

*Bottled GoodsSophie van Llewyn

A surprising novella about a young married couple in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Once the husband’s brother defects, the couple is scrutinized and harassed by the secret police. This fuels their determination to get out of the country. Part brutal reality and part fantasy, it’s a good reminder of how things used to be. I meet a lot of young people today who have no idea (and certainly no recollection, as they were not alive or conscious of world events) about what Romania once was, what eastern and southern Europe once were and the oppression people lived under.

*The Wordy ShipmatesSarah Vowell

I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell.

Who doesn’t love Sarah Vowell? For years I have seen her bringing history to life with humor and insight on various talk shows, but had never managed to read one of her books. Finally I grabbed The Wordy Shipmates from the library and am glad I did. As alive in writing as when Vowell shares historical anecdotes on tv, I can’t recommend this enough. I love how Vowell personifies historical figures and contextualizes with some modern-day framing. What do I mean by this? Take a read:

But really, as a child I learned almost everything I knew about American history in general and British colonials in particular from watching television situation comedies. The first time I realized this, I was attending a wedding in London. A friend of the groom’s, an English novelist, cornered my American friend and me and asked us to name the British general from the Revolutionary War whom Americans hate the most. He needed one of the American characters in the novel he was working on to mention in passing our most loathed Redcoat foe. “Um, maybe Cornwallis?” I said, adding that we don’t really know the names of any of the British except for the American traitor Benedict Arnold. When the novelist asked why that was, my friend answered, “Because The Brady Bunch did an episode about him. Peter Brady had to play Benedict Arnold in a school play.” True, I thought. The Bradys also taught us that the Robin Hood-like Jesse James was actually a serial killer; that the ancient indigenous religious culture of the Hawaiian Islands is not to be messed with; and that the Plymouth Pilgrims had a bleak first winter that was almost as treacherous to live through as that time Marcia got bonked in the face with her brothers’ football and her nose swelled up right before a big date.

Yes, somehow everything Americans need to know about history and culture – and this explains a lot – comes in the form of bite-sized sitcom nonsense à la The Brady Bunch. The Bradys taught us so much.

And further, with a slice of characteristic Vowell interpretation (italicized emphasis mine):

Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Bewitched produced not one but two time-travel witch trial episodes—one for each Darrin. They’re both diatribes about tolerance straight out of The Crucible, but with cornier dialogue and magical nose crinkles. The housewife/witch Samantha brings a ballpoint pen with her to seventeenth-century Salem and the townspeople think it’s an instrument of black magic. So they try her for witchcraft and want to hang her. Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago. My point being, the amateur historian’s next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid. I could look at that realization as a woeful lack of human progress. But I choose to find it reassuring.

Protestantism’s evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of religion runs parallel to political democratization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one’s king. This is the root of self-government in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, Protestantism’s shedding away of authority, as evidenced by my mother’s proclamation that I needn’t go to church or listen to a preacher to achieve salvation, inspires self-reliance—along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy—namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemElif Batuman

Another book I discovered rather by accident (so many are), whether in the “to-read list” of a friend or in an article I read, The Possessed was a little bit like time-traveling back to my own university years. Nowhere near as ambitious as the writer/narrator, I was digging into literature that most of my contemporaries had no interest in, and I spent a lot of time thinking about rather esoteric angles through which to examine various pieces of Russian literature and its characters’ psyches and motivations. It didn’t lead me anywhere in the end, but during my undergraduate years I felt (briefly) certain that that path would be the one I followed. But I was not cut out to be an academic, and reading Batuman’s memoir (as well as spending time of late with academics from across disciplines who report symptoms from burnout to complete breakdowns), I realize I was not only not cut out for such a life, but I didn’t really have the passion to carry me through some of the more difficult times one would encounter nor the networking and social skills to propel me to where I would need to be to have any success at all.

Batuman’s voice is one I enjoyed immensely; you get a lot of sarcasm, and a tiny dash of impostor syndrome (some reflections feel like she knows she is more than smart enough to be wherever she is, chosen for whatever she’s undertaking, but she is still unsure on some level, which is common for high-achieving, smart, creative people). She brings a dry humor to her retelling of her ‘adventures’, so that each of her interactions feels simultaneously real and absurd.

On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.” “Right,” I finally said. “As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” He nodded: “So you see the problem.”

Of course woven between her personal tales is some deft analysis and gripping storytelling about different works of Russian lit, which brings them to life in ways that the lit itself does not.

*Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about OurselvesFrans de Waal

For me, the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long. It didn’t do so originally—remember Darwin’s pioneering book—but it certainly has done so recently. Why did we go out of our way to deny or deride something so obvious? The reason, of course, is that we associate emotions with feelings, a notoriously tricky topic even in our species.

Animals have emotions. Period. Frans de Waal explains how.

Animal consciousness is hard to investigate, but we are getting close by exploring examples of reasoning, such as those given above, that we humans cannot perform unconsciously. We cannot plan a party without consciously thinking about all the things we need; the same must apply when animals plan for the future. The latest neuroscience suggests that consciousness is an adaptive capacity that allows us both to imagine the future and to connect the dots between past events.

Anyone who has spent time with animals of any species would probably argue that they have emotions and a kind of consciousness. These attributes need not be human in their manifestation, and indeed probably won’t be (the tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior and response through non-scientific observation and human projection doesn’t go very far in explaining animals). There are observable animal emotions at work in nature, as de Waal shares in often very entertaining ways, particularly where he draws parallels between human situational behavior and that of animals:

Even though in our political system women vote and are able to occupy the highest office, thus allowing for a social order quite different from that of many other species, the fighting rules have hardly changed. They evolved over millions of years and are far too ingrained to be thrown out. A male generally curbs his physical power while confronting a female. This is as true for horses and lions as it is for apes and humans. These inhibitions reside so deeply in our psychology that we react strongly to violations. In the movies, for example, it’s not terribly upsetting to see a woman slap a man’s face, but we cringe at the reverse. This was Trump’s dilemma: he was up against an opponent whom he could not defeat the way he could defeat another male. Having watched every presidential debate since Ronald Reagan, I have never seen as odd a spectacle as the second televised debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016. Its blatant physicality and hostility made it the debate from hell. Trump’s body language was that of a tormented soul ready to punch out his opponent yet aware that if he laid one finger on her, his candidacy would be over. Like a large balloon, he drifted right behind Clinton, impatiently pacing back and forth or firmly gripping his chair. Concerned television viewers live-tweeted warnings to Clinton like “Look behind you!” Clinton herself later commented that her “skin crawled” when Trump was literally breathing down her neck.

Immediately after the debate, which Trump lost according to most commentators, the British politician Nigel Farage mimicked a feeble version of a chest beat while gushing that Trump had acted like “a silverback gorilla.”

Or

When John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008, he selected a relatively young woman, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Men in the media regarded it as a brilliant move, calling Palin “hot” and a “MILF,” but no one seemed to realize how much male enthusiasm might harm Palin’s standing among women. Obama barely won the male vote (49 to 48 percent), but he ran away with the female vote (56 to 43 percent). Women begin to appeal as leaders only after they have become invisible to the male gaze by leaving their reproductive years behind. Modern female heads of state have all been postmenopausal, such as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher. The most powerful woman of our era, Angela Merkel of Germany, doesn’t even like to draw attention to her gender, dressing as neutrally as possible. Merkel is a skilled and shrewd politician who is unimpressed by men. When Vladimir Putin received her at his Russian dacha in 2007, he introduced his large pet Labrador to her, knowing full well that Merkel was scared of dogs. In the end, his tactic failed, because she drew a distinction between Putin and his dog, noting to journalists, “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.”22 Putin’s tactic showed how men always seek the upper hand through intimidation.

And most interestingly, but not having parallels with modern human politics, bonobos versus chimpanzees:

At the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just to stimulate some social activity. No one would dare doing such a thing with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a bloodbath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead. Because bonobos freely help strangers to reach a goal, researchers call them xenophilic (attracted to strangers), whereas they consider chimpanzees xenophobic (fearing or disliking strangers). The bonobo brain reflects these differences. Areas involved in the perception of another’s distress, such as the amygdala and anterior insula, are enlarged in the bonobo compared to the chimpanzee. Bonobo brains also contain more developed pathways to control aggressive impulses. The bonobo may well have the most empathic brain of all hominids, including us.

Interesting, you’d think—but science refuses to take bonobos seriously. They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting, and warfare. We have a “man the hunter” theory and a “killer ape” theory; we have the idea that intergroup competition made us cooperative, and the proposal that our brains grew so large because women liked smart men. There is no escape: our theories about human evolution always turn around males and what makes them successful. While chimpanzees fit most of these scenarios, no one knows what to do with bonobos. Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized. Charming species, but let’s stick with the chimpanzee, is the general tone.

Note my italics – this assertion points us back to Criado Perez’s book and its claim that the norm is established by the male existence/experience.

Coincidences

*The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic AgeSven Birkerts

Obviously I like reading about reading.

The interesting part of reading The Gutenberg Elegies is that the bulk of the book was written at the dawn of the internet/digital communications age, so e-readers were unforeseen. In fact Birkerts wrote in the original forward to the now-20-year-old (or thereabouts) book: “The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total (as evidenced by the book you are holding)—it may never be total—but the large-scale tendency in that direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks.” I read the book on my Kindle, so I was proving the very opposite point to the one he tried to make, and in so doing, I gave a lot of thought while reading to the way we consume information now as opposed to when Birkerts put this book together. He says it best himself in the opening part of the book:

“We are, it seems, most willing to accept a life hurried and fragmented on every front by technology; we are getting past the prior way of things, which could be slow and frustrating, but was also vivid in its material totality.”

Literature and old-style contemplative reading seem enfeebled—almost as if they need to be argued for, helped along by the elbow. Not that people don’t write and read in a thousand different ways; they do. Arguably, they “write” and “read” more than they ever have. But the belief in the gathered weight of literary expression, what we used to consider our cultural ballast, is fading and is likely to fade further.

What is ‘coincidental’ about my reading of this book at this time is that I had returned to Walter Ong‘s Orality and Literacy recently for a paper I was writing on memory. We exalt the written, literary language and tradition, but often forget that it, too, was preceded by something that has faded – oral tradition and storytelling, which relied on memory. A further coincidence was my stumbling onto an article about the “books that wouldn’t die/Undead Books” that form the canon of literary thinking and scholarship, but which live on, despite the argument that such works are no longer created (the article cites Ong’s work among these). These books are not written for the general public but seem to be written for other scholars; they do not hew to the constraints of one single academic discipline, relishing in drawing on scholarship, research and literature from across multiple disciplines (as the article posits, they are “radically antidisciplinary”, which is pretty much how my university was, for which I will always love it):

Yet despite making their authors’ reputations, Undead Texts rarely received their disciplines’ most coveted book prizes. It is easy to see why: Although undeniably scholarly, Undead Texts were also, in their day and ours, radically antidisciplinary. They challenge the diction, scope, and preoccupations that keep branches of knowledge distinct. Their claims encompass continents and centuries, ignore the controversies raging in specialist journals, and are formulated with woodcut-like starkness, minus the hedges and qualifications addressed to other specialists. In contrast to narrowly focused monographs, Undead Texts tackle topics outside the disciplinary mainstream, blithely ignore periodization, and disregard the boundaries separating bodies of knowledge.

Birkerts’ arguments about the “transformations of book culture” can be felt in considering the Undead Texts written about above – but I suspect such books were always written for a limited audience – but can also be refuted to some extent by the work I’ve cited this month by Elif Batuman. Although she writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner about her experiences examining Russian literature, it’s clear that her reading (granted, she is in the academic sphere) and that of others among her contemporaries is still quite careful, close and analytical in ways it seems Birkerts believes are dead.

Birkerts predicted that the nature of reading would shift dramatically, and here I believe he was correct, even if I wonder how much the general public read to begin with (this was undoubtedly always on the decline; Merve Emre’s book – cited below as well – chronicles this decay in how one reads in the postwar era and the commoditization of reading). Birkerts stated:

I see a deep transformation in the nature of reading, a shift from focused, sequential, text-centered engagement to a far more lateral kind of encounter. Chip and screen have at one and the same time inundated us with information—pages to view, links to follow, media supplements to incorporate—and modified our habits. They have put single-track concentration, the discipline of reading, under great pressure. In its place we find the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling. Attention spans have shrunk and fragmented—the dawning of the age of ADD—and the culture of literary publishing struggles with the implications. Who has the time or will to read books the way people used to? Book sales, when not puffed up by marketed “infotainment,” by “nonbooks,” are stagnant at best. Literature—fiction—is languishing. Indeed, at present, fiction is under assault by nonfiction, by documentary and memoir. I don’t see that a return to the status quo ante is likely.

I believe he is largely right, although his idea that “restless, grazing behavior” with regard to reading is all we will be left with is too limiting. We may consume the written word in new ways (as I did read his book on an e-reader), but we won’t necessarily only consume “infotainment” or fragmented chunks of information. He certainly is right that attention spans seem to have shrunk; there will always, though, be people who want to consume (and, like me, possibly overconsume).

Then again, it is not only about the consumption of the written word. It is about the overall experience of doing so, and there is no doubt that this is changing rapidly and significantly:

The big question, though less grand and encompassing, is the question implicit in the book’s subtitle: What will be the fate of reading? I don’t mean the left-to-right movement of the eyes as we take in information, but the age-old practice of addressing the world by way of this inward faculty of imagination. I mean reading as a filtering of the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery. Our reconfigured world makes these interactions—this kind of reading—ever harder to accomplish. The electronic impulse works against the durational reverie of reading. And however much other media take up the stack—of storytelling, say—what is lost is the contemplative register. And this, in the chain of consequences, alters subjectivity, dissipates its intensity.

I recall going on holiday for the entire summer of 1999. Packing for this lengthy trip, I had to weigh (literally and figuratively) what books to bring with me because I really could only bring a few. This was a limitation but also required consideration and some investment in, as Birkerts writes, “the durational reverie of reading”. By having less to read and more time to digest, the truly immersive reading experience occurs. Now, of course, I can load my Kindle with 1,000 books and read with abandon. But do I reflect and filter through “the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery” in the same way? It’s hard to say; I have so completely adapted to and adopted this new form of consuming written text that I cannot accurately compare the experience. I have firmly been swayed by the “more is more” idea when it comes to carrying my books around in digital form.

Birkerts, again accurately, foretold that we were/are living through a period of fundamental change; a paradigm shift. This I mostly agree with:

As I wrote before: the world we have known, the world of our myths and references and shared assumptions, is being changed by a powerful, if often intangible, set of forces. We are living in the midst of a momentous paradigm shift. My classroom experience, which in fact represents hundreds of classroom experiences, can be approached diagnostically. This is not a simple case of students versus Henry James. We are not concerned with an isolated clash of sensibilities, his and theirs. Rather, we are standing in one spot along a ledge—or, better, a fault line—dividing one order from another. In place of James we could as easily put Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison. It would be the same. The point is that the collective experience of these students, most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien. That is the breaking point: it describes where their understandings and aptitudes give out. What is at issue is not diction, not syntax, but everything that diction and syntax serve. Which is to say, an entire system of beliefs, values, and cultural aspirations.

It is more complex and nuanced than I have the stamina or expertise to explore here, but I’d say, yes, the collective cultural understanding that underpins our ability to understand works from a distant past and find basic common humanity in them has eroded. But the question inevitably arises as to how universal these “basic cultural” things ever were. I don’t know where or when the break happened, and I cannot say that it is complete. I suspect there are major commercial and educational policy issues at play beyond just Birkerts’s assertions that technology is constitutive of this paradigm shift (even if it plays a big role in the result and how the shift plays out). When an education system is underfunded, unequal, geared toward the lowest common denominator, fragmented, there is no way to guarantee that everyone within a culture receives the same grounding. On the other side of the coin, I suspect that this “common cultural heritage” to which Birkerts refers is not agreed upon by all racial and cultural groups, who have largely been excluded and whose voices have long been silenced. It is possible that this shift can make the landscape more inclusive, even if it makes the shared pool of knowledge less shared, less accessible (if one could say that these works were ever “accessible” to the level that Birkerts’s arguably elitist approach assumes).

But again, the broader point is well-taken; Birkerts isn’t saying we all need to read and want to read Henry James, for example. It is just that we should be able to find our way into works that have very little to do with us or our time, and this connection to history and even to our own imaginative powers, is waning:

I am not about to suggest that all of this comes of not reading Henry James. But I will say that of all this comes not being able to read James or any other emissary from that recent but rapidly vanishing world. Our historically sudden transition into an electronic culture has thrust us into a place of unknowing.

To enter the work at all we need to put our present-day sense of things in suspension; we have to, in effect, reposition the horizon and reconceive all of our assumptions about the relations between things. Hardy’s twenty miles are not ours. The pedagogue does not pile his belongings into the back of a Jeep Cherokee.

On the whole, Birkerts argues, we are moving – like it or not – away from depth. This is true in the realm of audiobooks, designed to help us “read” more conveniently or to “multitask” while losing the essence of deep thought and consideration and even losing actual parts of books, as audiobooks are often quite condensed. The process of being transported by a book to a different place, to a set of characters, a different time, is short-circuited by not having the experience of having to engage page-by-page in an interaction with the work. It has become, like so much of the world we live in, piecemeal and surface-level. This is what I, and probably Birkerts, lament(s).

That is, from start:

We are experiencing in our times a loss of depth—a loss, that is, of the very paradigm of depth. A sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things is a function of vertical consciousness. Its apotheosis is what was once called wisdom. Wisdom: the knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life. But swamped by data, and in thrall to the technologies that manipulate it, we no longer think in these larger and necessarily more imprecise terms. In our lateral age, living in the bureaucracies of information, we don’t venture a claim to that kind of understanding. Indeed, we tend to act embarrassed around those once-freighted terms—truth, meaning, soul, destiny … We suspect the people who use such words of being soft and nostalgic. We prefer the deflating one-liner that reassures us that nothing need be taken that seriously; we inhale the atmospheres of irony.

To finish:

The shadow life of reading generally continues on for some time after we have finished the last page. If we have been deeply engaged by the book, we carry its resonance as a kind of echo, thinking again and again of a character, an episode, or, less concretely, about some thematic preoccupation of the author’s. After I recently finished V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River*, I found myself brooding for days on the ways in which cultures and value systems come into collision. I brooded abstractly, but I also saw my reading affect my daily perceptions. Riding the subway or walking downtown, I would catch myself monitoring gestures and interchanges between members of different racial and cultural groups. I also read the morning paper differently, looking more closely at reports detailing racial and ethnic frictions. I had absorbed a context which suddenly heightened the “relevance” of this theme.

*As an aside, Birkerts cites Naipaul as an avenue into deep thought into how cultures clash. Interestingly, Criado Perez, too, cites Naipaul in Invisible Women, and makes not only her point – that women’s experiences are downplayed and criticized as not being universal, as being too narrow for broader interest (Naipaul makes this claim about Jane Austen: “V. S. Naipaul criticises Jane Austen’s writing as ‘narrow’, while at the same time no one is expecting The Wolf of Wall Street to address the Gulf War, or Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard to write about anyone but himself (or quote more than a single female writer) to receive praise from the New Yorker for voicing ‘universal anxieties’ in his six-volume autobiography.“), but also makes the case for my point on Birkerts’s failure to demonstrate sensitivity to the wholeness of humanity, in this case the culture clash between men and women and how we perceive the female experience in the world and in the arts.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Current and Flourishing as We AgeMary Pipher

We don’t become our wisest selves without effort. Our growth requires us to become skilled in perspective taking, in managing our emotions, in crafting positive narratives, and in forming intimate relationships. We develop the skills of building joy, gratitude, and meaning into every day. By learning these lessons, we cultivate emotional resilience. We have the capacity to build happiness into our lives with humor, concern for others, and gratitude. Of course, we can’t do it all of the time. That self-expectation would drive us crazy. However, we can develop habits that make it more likely that we will respond in an upbeat manner. It’s critical to distinguish between choosing to live lovingly and cheerfully and living a life of denial. One leads to joy, the other to emotional death. I have learned from my work as a therapist that secrets, denial, and avoidance invariably cause trouble. To move forward requires seeing clearly.

I wanted Women Rowing North to be amazing and inspiring, and sadly, it just wasn’t Having read an article about this book, it sounded like a timely and fascinating view on women contending with the often unwelcome challenges that come with age (perceived invisibility, not being taken seriously, misogyny coupled with ageism and the inevitability of loss – whether that is personal loss or the experience of losing who one once was). Articles have a way of doing that – extracting the richest parts and keenest points of a book, luring you into buying and reading something that the article has already dissected for you.

In theory it’s a deeply worthwhile topic, and the article I read, at least, made it seem like the book would delve more deeply into these questions. And, in fairness, it does. But it just did not hold my interest. Perhaps it was too much a mix of anecdotal stories about random people that the author relied on to illustrate certain themes that turned me off, but I found it hard to get through the book overall.

Nevertheless, there were some key points I took away; not surprising or new, but good reminders:

Health has a lot to do with our perception of age and how we live: “Developmental psychologist Bernice Neugarten made this distinction between young-old age and old-old age. As long as we can do most of what we want to do, we are young-old age. When our health fundamentally changes the way we live, we have entered old-old age. However, my own experience is that many of us are between those…”

Death, or where we see ourselves in relation to it, has a lot to do with how we live and the choices we make: “Psychologist Laura Carstensen discovered that our perspectives and decisions change greatly depending on our perceptions of how much time we have left. The shorter we think our lives will be, the more likely we are to do things that are meaningful and give us pleasure. Awareness of death catapults us toward joy and reflection.”

*Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar AmericaMerve Emre

It’s hard to characterize Merve Emre’s Paraliterary as a disappointment, or even something that I hated or disliked… neither is true. But it equally doesn’t belong in the other categories I’ve set up for myself (maybe an indication that there shouldn’t be categories?). Nothing is quite an adequate way to describe my response.

I suppose I found this book vaguely disappointing because, once more, I didn’t know what to expect, and when I started reading I realized that whatever it was… was not what I was expecting to see. How we create expectations about things we know very little about is something I could delve further into, but for now, I should say instead that this book was challenging and made a lot of fascinating points.

The premise of Emre’s work – that there is such a thing as a “bad reader”, according to strictures of academia, who reads for enjoyment or distraction (or any number of other reasons that have little to do with critical analysis or placing literature within historical or social contexts in which they are written – and interpreted). Yet in reading the book, it almost felt as though Emre were addressing a different thesis. Not that there are no traces of this premise, but perhaps because Emre comes from academia, I failed to see the clear link between the “bad reader” theme and the way she illustrates the construction of the bad reader. I see a link (or links) – but it felt obscured, particularly at first. That is, the stories she tells to highlight what I’d call a “depreciation of value” assigned to critical literary study seem to describe the systematic departure of American literature from the idea of literature for literature’s sake. (Moreover, assigning value to the arts and framing it in terms of depreciation may well be another dark mark of the pervasive influence of capitalism.) As well, capitalist and commercial concerns are woven into literature, in many cases not at all subtly, across genres and types of writer, as though postwar writing were an extension of America’s “the world is our workshop” foreign policy. (And, truly, wasn’t it? Even if the writers themselves were unaware of how their existence as American writers in the world unwittingly unleashed these ideas and values on an unsuspecting and ever-less-literary world.) Emre seems to argue as well that American ‘culture’ cannot be decoupled from these (sinister?) roots, and maybe this is the point.

Hughes’s attempt to move between the intimate particularities of his relationship with Plath and Plath’s status as a nationalized subject recalls the previous chapter’s argument about the irresolvable tension between individual acts of communication (i.e., contextually specific and embodied) and national representation (i.e., abstract and metonymic) in American readers and writers from Henry James to Mary McCarthy.

“Why have studies of international communication failed to appreciate the relationship between the material foundations of reading and feeling? By proudly touting their status as demystified readers of institutional discourse, many literary critics, historians, and in particular, scholars of American studies have eclipsed the ways in which their own critical discourses sanction certain readerly feelings while skewering others. In this sense, the last decade of scholarly production in American studies strikes me as an invaluable resource, for the feeling rules such work archives. Once the Cold War burned out and critiques of state power became de rigueur in American studies, love presented itself as one of the most powerful justifications for the discipline’s abiding investment in the nation-state as its object of analysis and its organizing episteme. When considered from a more polemical angle, one could say that love is the only compelling reason for the discipline’s continued existence at all.”

This is best illustrated in the examples Emre has selected in the book, including the ubiquity of references to American Express as a brand, as a lifestyle, as an activity, for American writers abroad: their identities tied up not only with an idea of Americanness, but also with the money they could access easily. American Express, like many other American brands and institutions could see the reach of their influence and exploit it.

Reed even grew fond of telling stories at board meetings about how the company had helped to construct families. His favorite romantic tale, which he also had reprinted in “American Express, its origin and growth,” involved a North Carolinian GI and a French piano player. The two had met when the pianist had played the US national anthem for the GI after the Liberation of Paris on August 19, 1944, and when they had fallen out of touch, the American Express had played “matchmaker” by reuniting them.28 In Reed’s whimsical fiction, international communication appeared as a romantic communion that triangulated national, consumer, and sexual identities, which in turn aligned the company’s production of the “serious” traveler with the representative mission of the “ambassador.” This American Express ambassador, like the Fulbright scholar, came bearing the affective gift of “goodwill” in the institution of marriage and the family.

Writers from the Beats, James Baldwin and Erica Jong – all considered subversive at the time of their publication – nevertheless subscribed to this uniquely American convenience of accessing fast cash, mentioning American Express, cash wires and credit cards extensively in their work. How counterculture can you really be when you’re just a few steps away from cash from back home? In the case of Jong in particular, at the intersection of feminism, independence and sexual liberation, the juxtaposition of these issues with her references to money makes one wonder how economic independence (did she have any, or was the money her husband’s?) fits into the story, and thus, how real the independence projected could have been… and thus how authentic or complete the whole feminist theme could be. Yet given the times and the zeitgeist, and the crafty inclusion of Jong’s character’s branded economic advantages, this point isn’t really considered.

“Although there is a puritanical undertone to Theroux’s insistence on no taxation without upstanding sexual representation, he was hardly the only reader to suspect that the “American money” responsible for the novel’s production was partially responsible for how the novel had popularized—and, by many accounts, cheapened—feminism in the Western world. Even the novel’s loudest champion, John Updike, who wrote a glowing review of Fear of Flying in the New Yorker, began by noting how American branded capital had made Isadora’s touristic consumption of sexual experience possible in the first place: “Childless, with an American Express card as escort on her pilgrimage, and with a professional forgiver as a husband, Isadora Wing, for all her terrors, is the heroine of a comedy.””

“What, if anything, to make of literary branding in Fear of Flying, a novel premised on a woman’s simultaneous refusal of sexual propriety and property, yet whose production seems so intimately bound up with the capitalist communication technologies of international tourism? Can brands overrun literary fiction? Can they institute their own conditions of literary reception and their own practices of reading?”

Nevertheless, as well-documented and beautifully described as these themes are, I am not sure that I left the book feeling I’d been convinced of the existence of a “bad reader”. It may, in fact, be a compelling argument for rethinking literature and the role of the reader (of whatever type) in its existence and evolution.

It does indeed stray off Emre’s topic but some assertions her book made brought me back to Toni Morrison. Mostly because Morrison seems uncompromising and deliberate in her writing, not concerned about whether or not she places understandable (or mysterious) literary references in places that critics or casual readers can access them. She wants instead to “subvert this traditional comfort”… leading me to wonder about how much literature falls outside of Emre’s analyses. Certainly much of 20th century literature exemplifies the points Emre makes, but for every reference that fits the bill, how many Toni Morrison’s are there, who defy a label?

This deliberate avoidance of literary references has become a firm if boring habit with me, not only because it leads to poses, not only because I refuse the credentials it bestows, but also because it is inappropriate to the kind of literature I wish to write, the aims of that literature, and the discipline of the specific culture that interests me. (Emphasis on me.) Literary references in the hands of writers I love can be extremely revealing, but they can also supply a comfort I don’t want the reader to have because I want him to respond on the same plane an illiterate or preliterature reader would have to. I want to subvert his traditional comfort so that he may experience an unorthodox one: that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination. My beginnings as a novelist were very much focused on creating this discomfort and unease in order to insist that the reader rely on another body of knowledge.” –The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and MeditationsToni Morrison