Category Archives: Books

Thinking like a critic

I had forgotten this passage. Will use it Thursday and Friday:

A.O. Scott:

Are you serious? Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion. “Critical thinking” may be a ubiquitous educational slogan—a vaguely defined skill we hope our children pick up on the way to adulthood—but the rewards for not using your intelligence are immediate and abundant.

As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fanhood or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. Meanwhile, as citizens of the political commonwealth, we are conscripted into a polarized climate of ideological belligerence in which bluster too often substitutes for argument.

There is no room for doubt and little time for reflection as we find ourselves buffeted by a barrage of sensations and a flood of opinion. We can fantasize about slowing down or opting out, but ultimately we must learn to live in the world as we find it and to see it as clearly as we can. This is no simple task. It is easier to seek out the comforts of groupthink, prejudice, and ignorance. Resisting those temptations requires vigilance, discipline, and curiosity.

A. O Scott, Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).

(Introduction is online)

Gish Jen

As a teacher and parent, I seem to encounter this a lot. Perhaps I’m speaking on a frequency that’ s inaudible to teenagers.

Listen, then, if you have ears.

Gish Jen, Typical American a Novel (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 4.

Night Watchman

Appreciated and liked this novel a lot.

Final line from acknowledgments:

“Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”  

Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman (New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2020).

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, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/books/review/herman-melville-moby-dick.html.

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.