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.
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.
I just finished The Buried Giant yesterday. I read the whole thing over the course of a two week work-cation so the entire book is still fresh in my mind, which I much prefer to those times when I’m forced to read a book like this over a much longer time horizon.
So the novel. I was just on Goodreads and saw it has a 3.47/5 rating and am rather surprised. I found the book, much like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, beautiful. Beautiful in its portrayal of the love between the two main characters – Axl and Beatrice (or “princess”, as Axl tenderly calls her). And here I’m not referring to romantic beauty of a youthful sort – like that depicted in most tear-jerking romantic films, or the sort of flawless beauty depicted on magazine covers. This book lets you go along on the journeys of a handful of people who have deep, time-worn, hopeful and yet pained human hearts. A journey where you bear witness to a short of tenderness (second time I’m using that word but it’s quite a good fit) between two old lovers that feels handmade and imperfect, with both deeply buried chambers of pain and areas of bright and simple light. And all that makes the story beautiful. It also makes you think something like: ah. So that is what the best sort of love can be.
But enough of me trying (and no doubt failing) to express the feeling the book created in me. The themes it engages with deserve serious reflection. Here, I’ll only highlight some of the main ones that interested me and leave it to in-person conversations over hot chocolate to discuss in greater detail.
Through the use of a fantastical land, shrouded in a mysterious mist that makes people (and perhaps even animals) lose access to their memories, the book creates a space for us to reflect on the nature of memory itself – its reliability, its construction, its purpose and use. It does this in the context of both our inter-personal relationships (e.g. family, romance) and as regards to the sort of collective memories of peoples (e.g., Britons versus the Saxons). Here are some thoughts I wrote down while reading:
what do we make of romantic love where the parties cannot remember their shared past? Beatrice seemed to think remembering quite important, that without the discreet memory of the event that led to her feelings for Axl their love was thrown into some doubt.
why do we care whether we can prove our love? And why do we think memory has anything to do with it?
the idea of “never forget” and the hope that once we remember, we’ll know the truth of the matter seems constantly challenged throughout the book. Ishiguro subtly and without warning tells the same event from different perspectives, from people with different histories and memories going into the event, and we see that there is no there there. (my favorite version of this revolved around the discussion of the buildings at the monastery) That is, there is no single true characterization of what happened, let alone what it means. But if that’s right, then I return to my earlier question – why is memory so important to our belief in the realness of love we experience today? Certainly a narrative of a life is important for our sense of self (who is the me sitting here if I am suddenly stripped of my own life story), but the characters don’t seem as preoccupied with worries about the integrity of their own selfhood. This is much more about memory’s role in our relations with others.
Can we apologize or ask for forgiveness for things we do not remember? Near the end of the book I was reminded of Luke 23:34. Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But when reading this book I’m not sure I understand what that sort of forgiveness looks like/ is doing. If someone does not know what they do – or, somewhat differently, if today they cannot remember what it is they once did – are you even forgiving them? And even if you are forgiving them, forgiving them for what? Is there blame to even be had there? Must there be blame before one can be forgiven? (to be clear, I had to look up the verse… and the fact it was Jesus who said it. But I did remember the line!).
Is it beyond us to love a person while remembering everything? Is it beyond us to love or at least accept other groups of people while remembering our histories? (and here I think of the truth and reconciliation commission as an argument that it is possible, though even there it might be that new versions of memories are formed through that process, and that somehow the reconstruction of memory, or at least its recontexualization, is necessary for forgiveness and peace.)
Oh and one more thing. The US edition I got was published by Alfred A. Knoff as a Borzoi book, printed and bound by RR Donnelley, the book jacket was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and the endpaper art was created by Neil Gower. This is unquestionably the most gorgeous modern edition I can remember laying eyes on. I very much hope to see more books published with such care in the future. A real pleasure to read something so beautiful and fitting to the story itself.
Read this in conjunction with Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by law professor Kenji Yoshino. I absolutely recommend the pairing.
In Covering, Kenji basically argues that until we are each able to be our “authentic selves” in society we are not truly equal. To say people are equal regardless of their sexual orientation (or lack thereof) but then say that gays shouldn’t “flaunt” their gayness is to suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. The test of equality is whether I can not only be bisexual but whether I can “act bisexual”. As I said in my review of the book, there are some serious issues with this idea of there being some way of being bisexual. But, putting that aside, his point is a good one: unless we can be our authentic selves, which means perform as our authentic selves, we aren’t actually equally. How Our Lives Become Stories is one piece in the large body of literature dealing with selfhood and, in so being, sheds light on how complex the construction of selves is (and thus how Kenji skips over much of the hard stuff). A lot of the book focuses on the relational aspects of self but it also contrasts that sort of self with the self we seem to be when it seems we’re acting apart from our relations, as radical individuals.
The book makes great use of autobiographies as a way of showing how the very construction of self (and the construction of a story about the self) varies across cultures and time.
Quite a great read. The first twenty or so pages are a bit of a slog (they struck me as overly dense and lacking the clarity he provides later), but after that it’s a very doable read.