- Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
- Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post and others (a collection of responses to a Post essay)
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (Fun but also sad. I now would like to own the complete OED. Note: very expensive)
- Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
- The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (a must read)
- Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (great to read after finishing her biography)
With the move back to Cambridge, writing, the start of GRE prep, and two weeks of fantastic cycling in Montana with The Cycling House (100% recommend them), reading was a bit light this month.
- The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations by José Medina (OUP)
- Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas (St. Martin’s Press)
- Was putzing around the MIT coop bookshop and stumbled upon this. Started reading a few pages and decided I just had to finish it. If you like the Law Stories Series of books, you’ll enjoy this. Would be a great optional reading recommendation for students in an Employment Law-type class.
- Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (originally published by Nation Books in 2004 but my version, with a new foreword and afterword, was published by Haymarket Books [check out their site for lots of great reads] in 2016)
- I was feeling a bit depressed and decided to read something with a, well, more hopeful tenor than my newsfeed. Good tidbits on narrative ethics, conflict, clashing conceptions of self, epistemic injustice, and the necessity of imagination/role of imagination in social progress.
- Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
- Unbelievably good. The first Hesse I’ve read and I had to stop myself from taking pictures of every single page and sending them to friends. For those interested in narrative, multiple identities/selves, etc. this is absolutely positively amazing.
- House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)
What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? Here I have in mind two different kinds of fantasy: (1) alternative worlds we gain exposure to through, among other things, stories; (2) the fantasies we have in our heads.
As for version (1), I’ve been thinking about/reading about whether we have a duty of epistemic resistance (borrowing philosopher José Medina’s term from The Epistemology of Resistance).The idea here is something like: each of us needs to cultivate epistemic openness to alternative points of view and ways of knowing because it is through confrontation with these alternative perspectives that ethical learning happens. Part of cultivating this openness is engaging in the kinds of self-interrogation that make us feel perplexed and self-estranged. From that space of perplexity and alienation-from-self, we are able to take seriously – listen truly – to the views of others. And the reason: because we are less stuck in our own perspective. We’ve seen the contingencies, conflicts, problems, latent in the mosaic of beliefs and commitments we have. (I know very little about the tradition, but, relying on Medina again, this is all part of the Pragmatist tradition espoused by Dewey, Jane Addams, and others.). Given how this works, we should affirmatively look for ways to confront ourselves with radically different views and possible worlds. (This is, for what it’s worth, part of why I think science fiction *can* be so important – some authors, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Marge Piercy, create worlds that really do jolt us/confront us with something uncomfortably different, thereby inviting us to question everything that seems axiomatic in our own lives and worlds).
As for version (2), what’s the relationship between those fantasies and our ethical commitments? Take sexual fantasies. If one is turned-on by depictions of women being degraded or humiliated, does that necessarily say something about one’s views and ethical commitments about women “in real life”? Some feminist theorists think the line between fantasy and real life is illusory – porn of men degrading women cannot but negatively effect the treatment of women. Others think there’s at least the possibility of compartmentalization. (think of violent video games – most (?) seem to think there’s no necessary relation between entering into those fantastic worlds and being violent in real life.) I don’t know, though I tentatively think it’s unlikely there’s a hermeneutic seal between the ethical and fantastical. It seems like our aesthetic preferences/responses, like emotions, are at least in some sense formed by/guided by/influenced by/responsive to our ethical commitments. For instance, imagine the creation of totally computer-generated child pornography. That is, no children were involved, it’s all animated, etc. etc. I suspect that most people would find the idea of being turned on by that repugnant, even though it’s not real, and even though it’s just fantasy. They think people should not be turned on by depictions of that thing. Ever. And yet… people don’t seem to have that same no-go response to depictions (even if those depictions are fake in some sense [though I don’t think they’re very fake]) of women being humiliated and/or dominated, though they swear up and down they think the subordination of women “in real life” is wrong. What’s the difference? A response might be: even fake child porn is a depiction of someone doing something to someone who we think just cannot consent, whereas a woman can consent to being humiliated. So it’s sexy because there’s consent? Perhaps. But the turn-on is the humiliation and degradation — the consent just seems to be what then might make being turned on by that “ok” in some sense.
Another thought: there might be a lot else going on in what makes something we think ethically problematic fodder for fantasy. The taboo generally might work, and that subordination is now supposedly taboo, that might be a partial explanation. (though that doesn’t seem to work for fake child porn!)
One more thought I’ve been mulling over: thinking back to fantasy version (1), we have radically different understandings and perspectives depending on where we stand in relation to others. Different perspectives give us access to different kinds of knowledge, different insights. What if playing out different roles (sexual being just one example, though an area where I suspect adults feel more free to play than they do (sadly) otherwise) can give us access to different understandings. Could a man, for instance, ever play out a submissive, dominated role in one area as a way of coming to understand a bit more what that is like for groups that are more oppressed generally? We know that acting, even for a short time, can lead us to really embody those roles (think Milgram experiment). And what if that might be a good thing, at least sometimes?
That’s all a long introduction to House of Holes. This book, I had hoped, would speak to both versions (1) and (2). Alas, not so much.
The premise is something like this: ordinary objects, like dryer and golf holes, are occasional-portals, transporting everyday people to The House of Holes, a magical, carnivalesque sex resort where any and all sexual desires can be fulfilled… for a price.
Re: Fantasy (1) (exposure to new ideas)
As I said, I was under the impression that the book would make space for imagining different kinds of sexuality outside the everyday heteronormative stuff we are all exposed to. In short, I thought it would be like SF — enter an alien world and, through exposure, be changed a little. Or learn something new and weird about yourself. But no. First, how odd that there was basically zero same-sex sex. How is that possible? More than that, the vast majority of the fantasies were just the same old heteronormative tropes on steroids. Granted, lots of steroids. Lots and lots of steroids, but the underlying idea of what was sexual was fundamentally and almost always centered on women as sex objects, men turned on by doing things to them, and women being turned on by being used. Even the economy of House of Holes seemed saturated in the same old gender awfulness: when men wanted something, they had to pay money or temporarily give up a body part (like an arm, in exchange for a larger penis). When women wanted something — for instance, a woman who wanted to have sex with a tree — you know what she had to do? Guess. Yep — perform some sort of sexual act for a man. When women wanted something they almost invariably had to pay with sex. Men (at least, only men had them) could also buy butt-grabbing passes. One in possession of such a card had the right to go up to any woman and demand the right to grope her bottom (they could also demand to do what they wanted with said bottom out in public or require her to go back to their rooms, for instance). Women were forbidden to refuse, on pains of (if I remember correctly) all their clothes disappearing, forcing them to walk around naked. Like… is that supposed to be paradise for women? I don’t deny that some women will like some (or all) of what the book depicts, but I found the sexual politics not so great and, more to my original point, not the kind of mind-bending experience I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say that some of the book wasn’t fun at times, and I certainly appreciated female characters who fully and openly embraced sex, but, again, this was not a whole new world.
Re: Fantasy (2) (ethics and aesthetics)
The above pretty much captures my issues. What was fascinating to me: of all the reviews I read on this book, none seemed to mention these potential critiques. Everyone cheered that it was “sex positive.” And perhaps they are right, in some sense. Some women, some of the time, want to be subordinated in sex. And if it just so happens that every woman depicted in House of Holes had that view, then I suppose it was positive for them. The question might be (1) should we worry about what people fantasize about and (2) is it problematic when we only depict one kind of fantasy/way of being sexual? It would have been much neater to see a woman who enjoyed subordination sometimes but other times took on the dominant role. It also would have been great to see some sex that wasn’t so focused on power-as-sexual-fuel at all. Though perhaps Baker is sympathetic to, or at least finds descriptively accurate, Oscar Wilde’s view: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
40. Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 by Woodruff Smith (Routledge)
41. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (updated edition, Haymarket Books)
This book is a collection of essays, the most famous among them: Men Explain Things to Men — the essay known for leading to the creation of the term “mansplaining”. (Tidbit: the author notes in a postscript that she has “doubts” about the term: “it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know: it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.” (13). I agree with her there.
The collection is great. My favorite two: Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable and Cassandra Among the Creeps. Cassandra deals with what Miranda Fricker would call epistemic injustice, mostly testimonial injustice specifically. In contrast to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, who was believed and believed until finally he wasn’t, Cassandra is the story of a woman who has the power of true prophecy but was cursed by Apollo (as punishment for refusing to have sex with him) so nobody would ever believe her. From there, Solnit discusses the harms we experience when others fail to take us seriously and fail to hear us. “Silence, like Dante’s hell, has its concentric circles.” (107). From talking about silencing, invoking both Judith Herman and Susan Brison’s work in this area (both scholars I respect immensely), she talks about the power of language, narrative construction, and how how words help us both describe and reshape our world. Like Fricker, the concept of sexual harassment is discussed. A great read on the heels of Consumption and the Making of Respectability.
Another interesting bit related to Respectability and the question of whether it can be used for subversive purposes (as question Smith raised): here, Solnit discusses the los desaparecidos (the disappeared) during Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983) and the success the mothers had in raising awareness and pushing for change. As Solnit understands it (and I just don’t know nearly enough to comment on this), the mothers used the respectability that they had in virtue of motherhood (itself a result of the respectability women are given in the domain of femininity, domesticity, emotions, etc.) to be taken seriously. Whereas others fighting against the regime were brushed aside and delegitimized as Radical, the same could not be done to mothers who invoked the revered concept of motherly love. Here, we might say that the respectability women get through domestication, while subordinating in some (most) ways, was also itself a tool they could use for subversive ends. It gave them a narrow way to enter public spaces, where they might usually be excluded, to push for justice.
42. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America by Dana Frank (originally South End Press, though I read the Haymarket Press version – purchased at the Chicago Lit Fest!)
I’m writing this on a plane without the book so I don’t have access to my notes! Short version: interesting and mind-opening.
43. The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin
44. From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century by Alexander Gourevitch (Cambridge University Press)
Absolutely worth reading. I did not before this understand the relationship between the concept of Solidarity and the neo-republican conception of freedom. It goes a long way toward explaining why, historically, collective action was considered masculine, whereas today it seems to invoke the feminine. I’d like to understand more how that shift to the feminine occurred. Perhaps it tracks declines in unionization?
Another month of good reads (speaking of which, friend me on goodreads!)
- The Language Animal by Charles Taylor (HUP)
- Continuing my reading in the epistemic injustice area. From HUP, “For centuries, philosophers have been divided on the nature of language. Those in the rational empiricist tradition—Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, and their heirs—assert that language is a tool that human beings developed to encode and communicate information. In The Language Animal, Taylor explains that this view neglects the crucial role language plays in shaping the very thought it purports to express. Language does not merely describe; it constitutes meaning and fundamentally shapes human experience. The human linguistic capacity is not something we innately possess. We first learn language from others, and, inducted into the shared practice of speech, our individual selves emerge out of the conversation.”
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- This is the first fiction work of hers I’ve read (shamefully enough). Absolutely remarkable. I’m tempted to read it again in a few months. The first book I can recall where I felt compelled to take photos of passages and send them to my sister! A certain Proustian sensibility in it (she was a huge fan of his) but with its own unique voice. Loved it.
- The Secrete Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker
- More in the epistemic injustice space, I thought this would be a good for thinking more about how the way we communicate shapes how others perceive/siganls our place in social hierarchies. This book could have been a bit shorter, I’d say. But, nonetheless, enjoyed.
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
- Just received the Man Booker International Prize a few weeks ago. Great story about how it got translated – Smith was a PhD student, read it in Korean, loved it, and decided it just had to be translated. She spent the next year learning Korean better, translated ten pages, sent it to a publisher, publisher loved it, and the rest is history!
- As I’ve said before, it is tragic how little opportunity English speakers have to read translations of Asian authors. Kang, a woman author from South Korea, is one of the very very very few South Korean authors we have access to. The loss is ours. The way she writes about relationships (indeed, the family dynamics especially), the way her characters see the world, the symbolism, themes, etc., all open up new ways of being and thinking.
- The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right by Sophia Z. Lee (CUP)
- So great – I only wish I had read this before I taught private discrimination this quarter. Broadly, the book looks at the history of constitutional rights in the workplace. Today, in the private sector, most of us are under an at-will employment regime. We can be fired for almost any reason or no reason at all. While most Americans *think* their constitutional right to free speech and, more at stake in this book, a Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to not be wrongfully discriminated against, are protected in the workplace, that’s just not true. This book traces the battles that got us to this point. It’s a fascinating combination of labor, race, and the rise of the New Right. And what I really enjoyed — a fantastic explanation of the pros and cons of an expansive state action doctrine. Originally, pro-labor wanted an expansive doctrine so the constitution could reach the workplace. Then, as the New Right gained power (esp. with Rehnquist and the Burger Court), the move to a colorblind Constitution meant that an expansive state action doctrine would preclude some of the affirmative action policies workplaces adopted. Expansive state action also meant government intervention in the inner-workings of unions, which itself gave industry a new and powerful anti-unionization tool (companies argued that if unions were discriminatory, the NLRB couldn’t certify them as workers’ exclusive representative as it would violate the Fifth A) [state action = certification as exclusive rep]). I have pages and pages of notes and questions. If you’re interested in state action, labor, civil rights, the history of right to work (the Right’s adoption of an expansive state action doctrine), and rights in the workplace, this is a must read.
February was another good month of books. In chronological order:
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)
- Winner of tons of awards, The Argonauts is a powerful book in the memoir/digester-and-reflector-of-culture vein. Reading, you feel the force of Nelson as she fluidly thinks through her own intellectual development, relationships, sexuality, gender fluidity, family, motherhood, art, and what one woman’s attempts at a happy life looks like.
- Side note: I’m a big fan of Graywolf Press and I highly recommend you take a look at some of their catalogs the next time you’re looking for something worthwhile to read.When I get their catalogs, it’s always a big treat to see what they’ve got coming out. They also published The Empathy Exams, which I wrote about a while back and two other book I read this month.
- A Theory of Discrimination by Tarunabh Khaitan (Oxford University Press)
- I’m teaching a seminar this spring on private (that is, non-government) discrimination and writing an essay examining and ultimately rejecting the autonomy argument against government regulation in that space (much inspiration drawn from Susan Brison’s work); this is one of the many books I’ve read in preparation for the class and for the paper. Helpful read though the section on private discrimination (framed as a discussion of the duty bearers of antidiscrimination laws) wasn’t ultimately of much help. The author more or less attempts to philosophically ground the status quo without questioning whether it really is justifiable. Nonetheless, helpful. Surprising number of typos.
- A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 by the one and only Nicholas Basbanes (Yale University Press).
- I love Nicholas Basbanes. Love. If you have any interest in books, libraries, book collecting – frankly, if you have any interest in joy – you must read his books. All of them. His writing is one gorgeous love letter to books and, more than that, book people. Here he writes about the history of Yale University Press. Not my favorite of his books but still totally enjoyable. Through this I also learned the controversy surrounding the publishing of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night – and now I’ve got it to read and tickets to see the play this month! If you enjoy learning a bit about the history of the spread of ideas and how publishing houses contribute to that, I recommend!
- The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine; Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (Graywolf Press)
- Saw this while perusing Graywolf Press’s site. I found it so depressing. Here’s the description: “Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary story: of surviving the siege of Leningrad, the march on Berlin, and Stalin’s purges, and of a transcendent love affair. Volsky’s life is an inspiration to Shutov—because for all that he suffered, he knew great happiness. This depth of feeling stands in sharp contrast to the empty lives Shutov encounters in the new Russia, and to his own life, that of just another unknown man.” What I wrote in the back: “Shutov is this passed-his-prime writer who a young aspiring (woman) writer idolizes until she realizes he isn’t the literary master she imagined. He is then supposedly transformed by his encounter with Volsky but it isn’t so clear how that transformation happens. We hear the same story Shutov hears but it never felt like I knew Shutov well enough to fill in the gaps and credibly imagine how he understood that story.” I will say that the Volsky story was moving and awful. Through him we see this meaningless nightmare merry-go-round where we eternally repeat (contrast Mila Kundera) awful, awful things. He is subject to the merry-go-round but stands outside it, content to live a simple life with his love, Mila. Mila and Volsky vaguely reminded me of Axel and Beatrice from The Buried Giant. There’s this stillness, the deadness of winter that kills everything. Then, a finding of another, and the fragile tenacity of that connection. And yet here, in contrast to The Buried Giant, that stillness and fog seems to only contain the two of them – the rest of the world standing in violent relief. In the end: I’m mixed on the book and had to take a break from fiction afterward. I can only feel so sad for so long!
- On Liberty by Mill
- For my essay on the autonomy defense
- Curiosity by Alberto Manguel (Yale University Press)
- Came across this on YUP’s site. Then read a recommendation that said if you like Nicholas Basbanes, you’ll love Alberto Manguel. Totally agree. This book is nothing if not a long beautiful musing on curiosity and language, using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a backbone for the journey.To say more than that is hard. I’ve never read Dante (shame, I know) but reading this has forced it onto my list. I have pages of notes! I wish I was as widely read as Manguel. Hopefully there’s still time!
- Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka (Graywolf Press)
- Just published Feb. 16 of this month, I got my copy that day. So so so depressing. If you’ve read Dept. of Speculation, it shares something with it — that New England cold, still, icy blues and gray kind of loneliness. The book will make you physically ache. Hurt. Ugh. Proceed with caution.
- The Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson (Princeton University Press)
- I had the great fortune of meeting and eating dinner with Liz Anderson when she presented at the Law & Philosophy workshop this month. I read a few chapters of her book for the workshop and then decided I needed the whole thing. Really enjoyed this (and more pages of notes!) and it’ll be required reading for my students this spring. Inspiring to see work in non-ideal theory that really engages with the facts on the ground while maintaining such clarity of thought. I aspire!
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- Richard recommended and I loved it! Super fun and clever. If you like Cory Doctorow, I think you’d like Robin Sloan. And if you’re from the Bay Area (or ever worked at Google), you’ll love all the references. Fun fun fun and happy. A good way to end the month!