Tag Archives: American literature

August Reads

Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!

But now onto the August reads…

  1. At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
    • After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
  3. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
    • Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
    •  A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.

July Reads

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.

  1. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations by José Medina (OUP)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

June Reads

 

  1. 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 CreepsCassandra 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?

 

May Reads

Another month of good reads (speaking of which, friend me on goodreads!)

  1. 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.”
  2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Reads

February was another good month of books. In chronological order:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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!
  5. On Liberty by Mill
    • For my essay on the autonomy defense
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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!

Aesthetics and Ethics: Dorian Gray and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

book cover book cover Read both in the last two weeks and while they are in many ways worlds apart, the authors share an interest in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and between human connectedness and the private/public hidden/disclosed lines. Dorian Gray was good (and has enough witty-yet-profound quotable passages to fill pages), but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I have about 8 pages of notes in the back of it. It also connects up with my favorite essay in the Empathy Exams about kitsch, authenticity, meaning, aesthetics, and morality. The book is a must read. But warning: keep the tissue box nearby.

The Empathy Exams

book coverJust finished — a solid read. The book is a collection of essays that loosely have an empathy theme. With some emphasis on the loosely. I’d just say it’s a collection of essays that all fall into the thinking-against-oneself genre — a genre that some find self-indulgent but I find comforting and insightful more often than not.

My favorite essay was In Defense of Saccharin(e). In it she reflects on sentimentality (like an artificial sweeter), anti-sentimentalists, irony, aesthetics, the use of metaphor to describe emotion (as a tool for deflecting and diffusing “the glare of revelation”), and a favorite line that I will now be using frequently, “big crude crayon-drawing feelings that could actually render us porous to one another.” Love that. Enjoyed thinking through the issues in that essay.

Go Set A Watchman

book coverFinished last weekend. I’d write more but given the endless sea of stuff that will be written, I can’t motivate myself to do so. So here’s the best I can do:

  • I thought the first hundred or so pages of a much higher quality than the rest.
  • Perhaps because I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird since I was a kid, watching Atticus fall from god to human was touching and heartache-inducing because I felt the pain Jean Louise (Scout) felt as it was happening. Not because I went into the book with a strong vision of Atticus as infallible hero.
  • Throughout the book JL is referred to as “color blind” and I wonder how a child reading the book today, where “color blind” has a particular (and different) meaning (think about equal protection, affirmative action, theories on how to stop racism, etc.), will understand it. My own thought is it’ll be an important teaching moment.
  • Harper Lee adds in some quite amazing passages that have to do with social hierarchy and the freedom to ignore social norms. I haven’t seen anybody write about this aspect yet but I hope they’re on their way. In short: JL is an elite while some around her (I’m thinking of Hank in particular) are considered trash. When JL is screaming at Hank about his choice to involve himself in a clearly racist and oppressive organization, Hank says some pretty interesting stuff about what it’s like to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But as interesting and complicated as it is, it does not register at all for JL. It’s not an excuse for his behavior by any means but it does open the door for a fascinating analysis of how the role of class in racism.
  • The title is a biblical reference: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Isaiah 21:6. I hope to see some reviews looking at that connection, too.

If this were a standalone book, I’d not be keen to recommend it. But because it’s connected to TKAM, a book that almost every kid in US schools has read, it seems a virtual must-read.

An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre

book cover So I lied. Less than twelve hours after saying I’d likely not post here for a bit I finished another Paul Avrich book and can’t help myself. [apologies for the not-great book cover. There wasn’t a good one online so I took a photo at 11 at night]

I’d never even heard of Voltairine before reading Avrich’s duel Berkman-Goldman biography a bit back (though to be honest, I knew nothing about Berkman and Goldman before stumbling upon their biography either) but there were a few quotes attributed to her that peaked my interest. I could tell Avrich had something of a special interest in her and so I was not at all surprised to find this biography.

As a biography this is a solid B. Part of the problem throughout Avrich’s work is that, being one of the only historians to look at anarchy in the United States, he no doubt felt compelled to do too much at once. Write a biography of one person but at the same time give an overview of Anarchism, and create mini-bios of as many other people as possible (more than is necessary to our understanding of Voltai). And perhaps this is just a product of coming at the book with unrealistic expectations, but I was also hoping the book would talk more in-depth about her actual views. That is, more than just a line or two about her views on education, prison reform, sex, etc., I wanted depth and nuance. A mini-treatise! Avrich’s research was exhaustive and impressive, and he cites to a ton of lectures she gave over the course of her too-short life. But then fails to tell us much of anything about her positions. He’s such a tease!

That all said, I learned a great deal about her and there’s no doubt Avrich’s work here has, as another reviewer said, “rescued de Cleyre from undeserved oblivion.”  L. Glen Seretan Review, 1979. Absolutely worth reading — I only wish it were twice as long!

Below are some of my notes, in case they’re of use: 

  • People worth looking up
    • Lucy Parsons (p.90)
    • Natasha Notkin (98)
    • Mary Hansen (98)
    • Jacob Coxey – “industrial army” – marched to DC to demand relief from unemployment. (100)
    • Max Nettlau – anarchist historian (109)
    • Elisee Reclus (157)
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – Voltai’s feminist hero. Mentions idea of room of one’s own and issues with opposite-sex romantic relations and power. (158; 161)
    • Kropotkin –  esp. Fields, Factories, and Workshops, influenced her views on the possible compatibility of technology, innovation, and labor. (167-68)
    • Catherine Breshkovskaya – Socialist revolutionary from Russia. (187). “Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal”. (186)
    • Relationship between anarchists & libertarians with socialists like Debs and London. (203)
    • Flores Magon
    • American libertarian and anarchist thinkers she IDs
      • Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau
  • Ideas, Orgs, etc.
    • Alternative living arrangements
      • Stelton Colony (82)
      • Sunrise Colony in Michigan (82)
      • Mohegan colonies (104)
      • Flores Magon’s Mexican revolution and corresponding experimentation with communal living in places like Tijuana. (226)
    • Ladies Liberal League and the Radical Library (97)
    • Marriage and Children – seemed to think it might be morally wrong to have children. (160)
    • Property
      • not an advocate of communal property originally and definitely not a Communist. (105; 144) (contrast with Emma Goldman)
      • in 1890s moved to a Dyer Lum-Proudhon type mutualism.
      • strongly opposed to commercialism. Had a sort of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy
    • Philosophy
      • anti-materialist conception of history. Like Berkman “the idea is the thing”
      • Dominant Idea Theory – thought was about consumerism. (162)
      • Anarchy has different threads
        • (1) Individualism vs. (2) Collectivist (subcategories include: mutualism, socialist/Marxist, communist)
        • (1) US native (I take him to mean not native but simply not first generation) vs. (2) immigrant. (155)
      • what draws some anarchists and libertarians to Buddhism? Here Avrich talks about Lum, who was her most stable mentor and lover, being involved in it. (56)

East of Eden

Bookcover I don’t have much to say: it might be the best novel I’ve ever read. I hope it’s true. There are also enough quote-worthy passages to fill another book. Some good ones:

  • “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
  • “I am certain that under their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love.”
  • “That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
  • “Tom bruised himself on the world and licked his cuts.”
  • “My Tom is a hell-bent boy. Always takes more on his plate than he can eat. Always plants more than he can harvest. Pleasures too much, sorrows too much. Some people are like that.”
  • “Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then – the glory – so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling  light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.”
  • “A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more…. all this coming out of a little hurt girl.”   “And not out of you?”    “Oh no, or it would have come before.”
  • “The emotion of nonviolence was building in him until it became a prejudice like any other thought-stultifying prejudice.”
  • “Adam concealed his treasure deep in his tunnels, but he was inclined to pay for his pleasure with something. Alice began to find gifts ….”
  • “men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”
  • “I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains … you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.”
  • “Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.”
  • “You’re going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow.”
  • “It’s like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know – because I’ve got her in me.”
  • “We are Cain’s children”
  • “Timshel”