Category Archives: Books

Great Expectations

Just finished Great Expectations. First time I’ve read it since the fall of 1982. I have little memory of the book save for the charismatic English teacher who walked us through the early portion.

My highlights courtesy of kindle…

Protests and movements

Taylor Branch from yesterday’s paper:

“A movement is different from a demonstration,” said Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil rights era.

“It’s not automatic — it’s the opposite of automatic,” he said, “that a demonstration in the street is going to lead to a movement that engages enough people, and has a clear enough goal that it has a chance to become institutionalized, like the Voting Rights Act.”

Here is Ibram Kendi from How to be antiracist:

Ibram X Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World Books, 2019), 215-216.

The White Whale

I love these sorts of articles, where a writer uses a book you haven’t read in a few years to explain the world.

Melville feverishly scribbled a diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for the human condition. We are all Ishmael the ingénue and Starbuck the pragmatist and Ahab the maniac, stuck on a ship driven by winds we cannot predict, helmed by a mind not fully comprehensible, whose compulsions we don’t control. The world is an elusive whale; we might choose coexistence or destruction. And though we do not decide the outcome, the hands on those oars are ours; each stroke invites consequences. And lest we overlook the obvious: The men went equipped to do harm in their quest for — oil. If we are all Ishmael and Starbuck and Ahab, caught in our collective addiction, the whales exemplify a counterculture, a way of living weightlessly, of not draining the world that floats them.

Carl Safina, “Melville’s Whale Was a Warning We Failed to Heed,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020, sec. Books,

I. Kendi, How to be an antiracist

Working on a review of this terrific book.

“But for all of that life-shaping power, race is a mirage, which doesn’t lessen its force. We are what we see ourselves as, whether what we see exists or not. We are what people see us as, whether what they see exists or not. What people see in themselves and others has meaning and manifests itself in ideas and actions and policies, even if what they are seeing is an illusion. Race is a mirage but one that we do well to see, while never forgetting it is a mirage, never forgetting that it’s the powerful light of racist power that makes the mirage.”

Excellent CSpan Session here with Professor Kendi.

Perfect for this moment

“…Rami said to the audience that all walls were destined to fall, no matter what. He was not so naive, though, to believe that more would not be built. It was a world of walls. Still, it was his job to insert a crack in the one most visible to him.”

Colum McCann, Apeirogon (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), 401.

Plague quote

“And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”

Tony Judt on the Plague

The entire article is here.

It does not follow from this that the plagues that humankind brings down upon itself are “natural” or unavoidable. But assigning responsibility for them—and thus preventing them in the future—may not be an easy matter. And with Hannah Arendt we have been introduced to a further complication: the notion of the “banality of evil” (a formulation that Camus himself would probably have taken care to avoid), the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable men with clear consciences.6

These are now commonplaces of moral and historical debate. But Albert Camus came to them first, in his own words, with an originality of perspective and intuition that eluded almost all his contemporaries. That is what they found so disconcerting in his writing. Camus was a moralist who unhesitatingly distinguished good from evil but abstained from condemning human frailty. He was a student of the “absurd” who refused to give in to necessity.7 He was a public man of action who insisted that all truly important questions came down to individual acts of kindness and goodness. And, like Tarrou, he was a believer in absolute truths who accepted the limits of the possible: “Other men will make history…. All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims—and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”

The case for the nation

The book opens with this quote:

Nations reel and stagger on their way; they
make hideous mistakes; the commit frightful
wrongs; they do great and beautiful things.
And shall we not best guide humanity by
telling the truth about all this, so far as the
truth is ascertainable?

—W.E.B. Dubois,
The Propaganda of History, 1935

If I had a class right now, I’d like to argue over this quote from scholar Yael Tamir:

“The liberal tradition, with its respect for personal autonomy, reflection, and choice, and the national tradition, with is emphasis on belonging, loyalty, and solidarity, although generally seen as mutually exclusive, can indeed accommodate one another.” p.130

The second to last paragraph of the book is money, too:

“In a world made up of nations, there is no more powerful way to fight the forces of prejudice, intolerance, and injustice than by a dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of laws.” p. 137