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.
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.
Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth” (although it is ostensibly about her youth in the Great War, it is very much a 1930’s book in its grimness, its pacifisim, its vision of an inevitable second Great War coming…)
Upcoming episodes: Our next BDT guest is Ben Fountain, author of the amazing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, now a (not-quite-so-amazing) Ang Lee film. Followed by a return to regular Recall This Book programming: Harvard historian Vince Brown joins us to discuss Caribbean modernity and his recent book, Tacky’s Revolt.
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.
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.
So, John sat down with Nir to discuss the idea of deliberately exposing healthy young volunteers to corona virus in order to accelerate the efficacy phase of vaccine testing. Prior to this pandemic, many felt challenge testing with a deadly disease was beyond the ethical pale. Eyal et. al propose that despite its checkered history (think coerced deadly medical procedures), there is an interesting philosophical case to be made in its favor.
Want to read more coverage of challenge testing? Start with this Washington Post article, or this one.
Upcoming Episodes: Books in Dark Times returns next week with Australian scholar Vanessa Smith singing the praises of the uncategorizable Marion Milner–as well as one of John’s favorite novelists from Down Under. The following week, Modernist Paul Saint-Amour wins John’s heart by unpacking the metaphysics of time travel in such SF born-classics as Arrival, perhaps the most octopus/Heptapod-loving film of recent years.
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.
Upcoming: We pivot briefly away from Books in Dark Times to discuss the ethics of deliberately exposing people to the novel corona virus. John discusses the moral quandaries around accelerated vaccine testing with Nir Eyal, a Rutgers bioethicist.
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.
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.