Carlo Rotella of Boston College is author of six books, among them the amazing Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (University of California Press, 2002) and most recently The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood (University of Chicago Press, 2019). What is he reading in the darkness? He starts by praising sagas, makes a case for stories of disagreeableness and plugs a remarkable book about preaching, deception, and the urge to belong.Continue reading “39 RTB Books in Dark Times 12: Carlo Rotella (JP)”
Beth Blum, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard, is the author of The Self-Help Compulsion (Columbia University Press 2019). Learn how self-help went from its Victorian roots (worship greatness!) to the ingratiating unctuous style prescribed by the other-directed Dale Carnegie (everyone loves the sound of their own name) before arriving at the “neo-stoical” self-help gurus of today, who preach male and female versions of “stop apologizing!” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll either help yourself or learn how to stop caring.Continue reading “38 Beth Blum on Self-Help from Carnegie to Today (JP)”
Elizabeth Bradfied is editor of Broadsided Press, professor of creative writing at Brandeis, naturalist, photographer–and most of all an amazing poet (“Touchy” for example just appeared in The Atlantic). Her books include Interpretive Work, Approaching Ice, Once Removed, and Toward Antarctica. She lives on Cape Cod, travels north every summer to guide people into Arctic climes, birdwatches. She is in and of and for our whole natural world.
So, is it poetry sustaining her now? Or does she (she does!) have other sources of inspiration?Continue reading “37 RTB Books In Dark Times 11: Elizabeth Bradfield (JP)”
Black lives matter. Yet for decades or centuries in America that basic truth has been ignored, denied, violently suppressed. Many of the mechanisms that create an oppressed and subordinated American community of color can seem subtle and indirect, despite the insidious ways they pervade housing law (The Color of Law), education (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together, Savage Inequalities) and the carceral state (The Condemnation of Blackness, The New Jim Crow, Locking Up Our Own).
Although there is plenty of subtle racism in policing as well, there can be a brutally frontal quality to white-power policing: just look at the racial disparity in the stubbornly astronomically number of fatal shootings by police.
In this episode, we join other public discussions (including Brandeis University’s “America’s Racial Reckoning: Black Lives and Black Futures in Historical, Political and Legal Context“ and Democracy Now’s interview with Angela Davis on abolition) of police brutality, systemic and personal racism and Black Lives Matter. We are lucky to be joined by Daniel Kryder and David Cunningham, two scholars who have worked on these questions for decades.Continue reading “36 Policing and White Power: (EF, JP) Global Policing Series”
RTB listeners already know the inimitable Martin Puchner from that fabulous RTB episode about his “deep history” of literature and literacy, The Written World. You may even know he has a family memoir coming out soon, The Language of Thieves.
But it took Books in Dark Times to uncover his secret hankering for tales of the British aristocracy, and for off-kilter modernist texts.Continue reading “35 RTB Books In Dark Times 10: Martin Puchner”
What is consoling and engaging the author of the best novel about America’s dismal experience in Iraq? American novels, especially those about Americans abroad (Joan Didion. say) have always done something special for him. Marilynne Robinson’s and James Baldwin’s work make us confront the reality that’s happening around us all the time, “a freaking massacre.” He carried the the (fictional but genuine) facts of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in his head for forty years.Continue reading “33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)”
Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.
Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.Continue reading “32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)”
Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.
There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:
Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.
Darwin, though, saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:
Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.Continue reading “Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel”
U. Sydney professor Vanessa Smith–author of Intimate Strangers, and also of this lovely short piece about Marion Milner–joins John to discuss her pandemic reading. She praises a Milner (quasi)travel book, but she also makes the case for M F K Fisher and a book about the glories of hypochondria.
Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.Continue reading “31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)”
On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”
It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.
Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”Continue reading “30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine”
Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and, most celebrated of all, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. His honors include many Locus, Hugo and Nebulae awards. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the novels of Phillip K. Dick.
Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon in late March. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner.Continue reading “29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)”
Seeta Chaganti, medievalist extraordinaire (Strange Footing and The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary) joins John to discuss–wait for it–data visualization in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher, visionary and scholar. They go on to discuss past traditions that merge text and image in ways that foreshadow modern visualization practices, and close with beloved books that take readers “back of the tapestry” to reveal what everyday front-of-tapestry life keeps decorously hidden.Continue reading “28 RTB Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)”
I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.
I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.
His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.Continue reading “A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague””
Aside from being John’s (younger, brighter, handsomer–and definitely hirsuter) brother, what has the inimitable David Plotz done lately? Only hosted “The Slate Political Gabfest“, written two books (“The Genius Factory” and “The Good Book“) and run the amazing travel website, Atlas Obscura.
So, what is he reading? The fully absorbing “other worlds” of Dickens and Mark Twain tempt David, but he goes another direction. He picks one book that shows humanity at its worst, heading towards world war. And another that shows how well we can behave towards one another (and even how happy we can be…) at “moments of super liquidity” when everything melts and can be rebuilt. He also guiltily admits a yen for Austen, Rowling, and Pullman–and gratuitously disses LOTR. John and David bond about their love for lonnnnnnng-form cultural history in tSo, what is he reading?he mold of Common Ground. Finally the brothers enthuse over their favorite book about Gettysburg, and reveal an embarrassing reenactment of the charge down Little Round Top.Continue reading “27 RTB Books in Dark Times 4: David and John Plotz”
Steve brings light to dark corners in this the second installment of Books in Dark Times. He sings the praises of Charles Dickens, of Anthony Trollope (Elizabeth, offstage, chuckles delightedly) and the world-escaping delights of both Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the Mapp and Lucia novels of E. F. Benson. He concludes with sweet words for the sour genius of a trio of late 20th century American pessimists: Joan Didion, Dorothy Baker and Iris Owens.Continue reading “25 RTB Books in Dark Times 2: Stephen McCauley (JP)”
“Books In Dark Times” takes its inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, which proposes “That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth.”
At this dark moment, we really want to know what brings people like Alex—and like you, dear listener—comfort or joy in these dark Corona days. Alex Star, brilliant editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, former editor of Lingua Franca, founding editor of the Boston Globe Ideas section, is the editor of many remarkable prizewinning books including George Packer’s The Unwinding and James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own.Continue reading “24 RTB Books in Dark Times 1: Alex Star (JP)”
My own thoughts nowadays turn–surprise, surprise–to Hannah Arendt. She has this to say in her unforgettable 1968 book, Men in Dark Times:
“That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth–this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”
So, we decided to devote several RTB episodes to this hunt for candles or suns. We started with dear old friends: Steve McCauley (who already talked to us about the comic novel), renowned editor Alex Star (that episode drops tomorrow), John’s brother David (host of The Slate Political Gabfest), Seeta Chaganti (professor of English at UC Davis and author of Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages), Paul Saint-Amour (Co-editor of Modernist Latitudes), and Vanessa Smith (author of Intimate Strangers).
In the weeks to come you can hear what various writers and scholars and thinkers we love had to say. Who chose Little Dorrit and who was reading Jill Lepore? Who found Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year 2020’s hot read? And who confessed to staying up late binging Brideshead Revisited?
Our questions were simple ones:
What books are currently giving you comfort? why?
What books are giving you joy? why?
What do you read even though it gives you neither comfort nor joy?
What is the oldest book you are reading or plan to read? The funniest? The saddest? The lamest? What childhood books? Why?
Look at your bookshelf now: what books are crying out to be read?
So, dear listeners, where do you stand? We really want to know, and there are a number of great ways you can reach us. You can leave us a comment on this post to start the conversation, or if you’re feeling inspired, voice record your thoughts, email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we might include them in an upcoming podcast episode!
We would also love to hear from you on our various social media accounts:
Use the hashtag #booksindarktimes on a photo of a book you’ve recently turned to for comfort or joy and to check out what others are currently reading.
This is the first of several RTB episodes about the history of money. We are ranging from the earliest forms of labor IOUs to the modern world of bitcoin and electronically distributed value. Our idea is that forms matter, and matter in ways that those who profit from those forms often strive to keep hidden. Today, we begin by focusing on the rise of capitalism, the Bank of England, and how an explosion of liquidity changed everything.
We are lucky to do so with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School, who recently published Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is also managing editor of JustMoney.org, a website that explores money as a critical site of governance. Desan’s research explores money as a legal and political project. Her approach opens economic orthodoxy to question by widening the focus on money as an instrument, to examine the institutions and agreements through which resources are mobilized and tracked, by means of money. In doing so, she shows that particular forms of money, and the markets within which they circulate, are neither natural or inevitable.Continue reading “23 Recall This Buck 1: Chris Desan on Making Money (EF, JP)”
Ajantha Subramanian‘s new book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India is much more than simply an historical and ethnographic study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. John and Elizabeth speak with Ajantha about the language of “merit” and the ways in which it can conceal the continuing relevance of caste (and class, and race) privilege–in India, yes, but also in American and other meritocratic democracies as well.
Our wide-ranging discussion explored how inequality gets reproduced, passed on and justified. We talked about some of the ways caste–often framed as a fundamentally “Eastern” form of difference–not only seems to have a lot in common with race, but also shares a history through colonial, plantation-based capitalism. This may explain some of the ways “merit” has also made race (and class) disparities invisible in the United States. This topic surfaced during our discussion of the ways in which dominant groups excoriate the “identity politics” of those seeking greater access to privileged domains, and claim their own independence from “ascriptive” identities while silently relying on the privilege and other hidden advantages of particular racial or caste-based forms of belonging.Continue reading “22 Ajantha Subramanian: Meritocracy, Caste, and Class (EF, JP)”
Not long after Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana to the wall, John and Elizabeth met with Silvia Bottinelli from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to talk about food as art and art as food. Silvia is a Modern and Contemporary Art historian in the Visual and Material Studies Department at SMFA and her interests range from post-war Italian art to representations of the domestic and the uses of lead in art. We met to discuss the volume The Taste of Art: Cooking, Food and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices which she co-edited with Margherita d’Ayala Valva. The volume is a (forgive me) veritable buffet of delicate savories and sweetmeats and our conversation was similarly rich and far-reaching.
In our aesthetic and culinary wanderings, we talked about Dutch Vanitas Painting, applesContinue reading “21 Silvia Bottinelli: Food, Art, Food Art!”