Tag Archives: philosophy

Ursula K. Le Guin

Such a devastating loss of such an incredible and truly imaginative person.

Thanks to Director Arwen Curry, her team, and many Kickstarter backers (which includes me and my tiny drop in the bucket back in February 2016), we will soon(ish?) have an incredible documentary traversing Ursula K. Le Guin’s absolutely remarkable life and legacy. There’s still time to donate to their finishing costs here.

2017: A Reading List in Review

The books I read in 2017, listed chronologically (January reads first). Some of these I commented on more fully in earlier posts and/or on Goodreads. You can see a prettier visualization of this data here.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (my first Ali Smith and as I’ve said before, it was a true joy to read)
  2. How To Be Both by Ali Smith (I preferred Autumn but also liked this)
  3. Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin (loved her voice)
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (disappointing – one star on Goodreads)
  5. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (really fantastic biography, though not as great at Lee’s bio of Virginia Woolf)
  6. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (great)
  7. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post, K. Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Thomas Grey, and Reva Siegel
  8. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (if you want a super fun read about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, you must read this)
  9. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (also excellent)
  10. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (eye-opening and I’ve started giving it to all my girlfriends)
  11. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (enjoyed, especially after reading her biography first. In all her work there seem to be these moments of intense violence that are mixed in with the very normal everyday. In some sense it makes it even more jarring — you aren’t expecting it and she doesn’t do anything to help you process it afterwards. It’s just — here’s a horrible violent thing. And then we pan to the left and see Johnny having some tea.)
  12. The Taming of Free Speech by Laura Weinrib (If you’re interested in the history of civil liberties, esp. the First Amendment, and how its current form is far away from its labor economic-rights-based origins, this is a must read. I thought it was so interesting. Go Laura!)
  13. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  14. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale by Debra Satz
  15. N-W by Zadie Smith (got progressively better as it went along)
  16. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky (As best I can tell this is *the* history of the Wobblies book to read – and for good reason)
  17. To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization by William Alford (such an interesting topic but didn’t give me exactly as much as I’d hoped for. I wanted a deeper dive into the history and development of conceptions of property and ownership in China generally and then for IP specifically. Stealing as a concept already assumes a background ownership structure. It assumes that someone is a rightful possessor and then some other person wrongfully took that possession from them. But what’s interesting is how cultures can develop where what we might think of as stealing and wrong others simply don’t even conceptualize in that way. That is part of what I wanted to walk away with a better understanding of. But at only 236 pages, you can imagine that a lot had to be left out. If anybody reading this knows of another book like this but longer and deeper, please let me know!)
  18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf (I loved this book. Like, loved it. Dear book gods, please please please give me a signed first edition. And if you want to send me the presentation copy from Woolf to Vita Sackville-West or even Vanessa Bell (see, I’m not picky!), I promise… well… I’ll promise whatever you’d like! (note the current price of the presentation copy to Vanessa Bell is currently listed on abebooks at $325,000!) (The cheapest signed first edition I see is already $2,887.50 on abebooks. I cry.)
  19. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (given my love of The Hours (which you should read right now if you haven’t), I thought I’d have to love this one. But, alas, it just didn’t work much for me. I found Orlando and To The Lighthouse to be absolutely wonderful though.)
  20. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (great and now filled with pages of my notes)
  21. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
  22. Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson (her Tanner Lectures followed with commentary from a number of people in different fields and then her replies to those replies.)
  23. The Disappearing L by Bonnie J. Morris (about the rise and fall of US lesbian culture since the 70s, focusing almost exclusively on concert festivals (esp. Michigan Festival) and music more generally. As a Lilith Fair lover, I enjoyed reading about all the many awesome festivals that came before it. The demise of these kinds of events (think a women-only burning man in a summer camp) is a true loss.)
  24. Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson
  25. Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi
  26. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller (easy intro to attachment theory, though I found their inability to sympathize with/contextualize avoidants a serious mark against it)
  27. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  28. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (sometimes, some of us, become a little, shall we say, unwell, when it comes to romantic relations. Most of the time we take this behavior to be bad/something to ‘work on’. Here’s a story of a woman who did the opposite. Put another way, there’s the person who calls their ex a bunch of times in a row and then finally feels ridiculous and creepy. Then there’s the person who just keeps calling, leaving hundreds of messages, sending letters, emails, etc. and 100% owns that. In fact, turns the whole thing into something of an art project. This is the person who drives their car, full-powered, over a cliff and while falling just screams manically “yes!!!!!” This book is about this latter sort of person. I found it sort of amazing.
  29. The Myth of Ownership by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel
  30. The Sum of Small Things by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (my previous review is here)
  31. Future Sex by Emily Witt (a total disappointment)
  32. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy by Richard E. Ocejo (‘how educated and culturally savvy young people are transforming traditionally low-status manual labor jobs into elite taste-making occupations.’ People who gave this less than four stars on Goodreads were objectively wrong)
  33. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (charming and delightful. I just loved this. If you, like me, love books about books and book culture and book collecting, you would absolutely treasure this one)
  34. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters (3-stars ok)
  35. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (I loved American Gods back in the day and was motivated to read this while watching the American Gods show. I love this world and would like to pay it more visits)
  36. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff (the follow-up book to 84, Charing Cross Road. Also enjoyable but not nearly as much so as the original)
  37. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch (Not hating men for about a week after reading this was a challenge)
  38. The End of the Story by Lydia Davis (it’s not often that I explicitly think about form in literature. This book changed that. When trying to talk about, make senes, etc. of very painful times, the truth is we often don’t have one clear overarching narrative that runs in chronological order. Instead, we have fragments. Pieces from different moments run together. There can be a certain stillness and painful fog hanging over us. This book perfectly captures this through, in part, experimenting with form.)
  39. Virginia Woolf by Hermoine Lee (without question the best biography I have ever read in my entire life. The only negative is that I don’t quite love Woolf-the-person so much anymore. But honestly, if you read Woolf, give yourself the gift of reading this book.)
  40. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne (A goddamn tragedy. I was angry when I finished it. It was so bad, so unbelievable, so unfortunate. Oh, it hurts me still. I consider this outside the Canon and a flukey horrible mistake (that is making lots of people very rich). It’s so bad. Save yourself the heartbreak.)
  41. Conversations on Art and Aesthetics by Hans Maes (A collection of interviews with some of the leading aesthetic philosophers around. For someone with no prior background in the topics, I found it a super helpful primer that sparked tons of ideas for future exploration
  42. Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought by Samuel Scheffler
  43. My Brilliant Best Friend by Elena Ferrrante
  44. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
  45. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  46. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (my reading these back-to-back over the course of *maybe* a week and a half speaks for itself. The relationship between the two main characters was so fascinating and rich and challenging. I kept thinking about these books for months.)
  47. Beauty by Roger Scruton
  48. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (worth reading multiple times and so much to say about it. The betrayal at the end (having to do, I think, will a desire to destroy what you feel controls you), our extremely limited access to Miss Brodie’s life outside the views of the girls — it was all just so psychologically interesting.)
  49. Private Wongs by Arthur Ripstein
  50. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (translated by Jocelyne Allen) (an autobiographical manga. I just wanted to give her a big hug)
  51. The Course of Love by Alain do Botton (long-term relationships are hard and the more books we have that talk about different ways to make them work, however they might work for those individuals,  the better)
  52. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (I *loved* Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop and this was Sloan’s next book. Totally fun. Delightful. I felt like I was back in the bay area working at Google. Dear  Robin Sloan, I love you. Sincerely, me.)
  53. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (rich, sad, and with a real sense of place)
  54. By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano (a step into more experimental-y writing styles.)
  55. On Beauty by Elaine Scarry
  56. How Fiction Works by James Wood (if you read fiction, you should read this book)
  57. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art by Alexander Nehams (yes yes yes)
  58. The Tyranny of the Ideal by Gerald Gaus (I saw him present at the NYU Law & Philosophy Colloquium this Fall and was absolutely fascinating with what his work on complex systems could mean in epistemology. That talk and this book inspired an entire paper of mine, and inspired me to take a course with Scott Page’s Modeling Complex Systems course on Coursera
  59. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe (Many little morsels of interesting thought but, alas, I felt like there was not enough depth. I wrote a review where I tried to help rationally reconstruct some of his arguments and provide some more nuanced accounts.)
  60. The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee (recommended by a friend. It’s a two-part lecture Coetzee gave at Princeton for the Tanner Lecturers. But instead of a normal lecture, he delivered a fictional novella. I think this could pair nicely with Unspeakable Conversations by Harriet McBryde Johnson [NYT link here])
  61. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Plays by Mitchel Resnick (read to help with my epistemology paper. Quick and enjoyable)
  62. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (better late than never. Read to help provide some context for my reading of Charles Mills’ White Ignorance and The Racial Contract)
  63. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (Enjoyed)
  64. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (I mean, the book is magical. The idea that octopi might be the most alien conscious creatures we ever encounter is striking. That nature could produce such different kinds of intelligent life, basically totally separate from each other is beautiful. It also provides me hope that there are aliens out there and they will find us!)

May 2018 bring more great books!

February Reads

  1. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  2. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post and others (a collection of responses to a Post essay)
  3. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  4. 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)
  5. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  6. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (a must read)
  7. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (great to read after finishing her biography)

62 books read in 2016

A great year of reading.

Since my last post:

  1.  The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel (fascinating, even-handed)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. If on a winter’s night a travel by Italo Calvino
  4. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
  5. She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

September Reads

While I’ve completed the 52 book challenge already, I’ve decided I’ll keep posting my monthly reads. At least for now.

  1. Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly by John Inazu (YUP 2012)
  2. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015)
    • In one of Colin Powell’s leaked messages he mentioned reading this book (he specifically said, “Just finished a book by a guy named Llosa about loss of culture. It was reviewed in the WSJ last week. Culture is going and with it the ties that bind.”). If Powell thought it worth mentioning the book, I figured it was worth my reading it. I found it a mixed bag. I’d recommend the first eighty or so pages and then a skim of the rest.
  3. Autobiography of Mother Jones by Marry Harris Jones (aka: Mother Jones), edited by Mary Field Parton (Charles H. Kerr Publishing 1996. Originally published by Kerr in 1925)
    • An absolutely incredible person. However, I recommend a bibliography before her autobiography (she assumes lots of prior knowledge). A few tidbits:
      • You remember the Divine Right of Kings? Here is what the President of the mine owners association said in 1902: “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected not by the labor agitator but by the Christian men and women to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.” (61).
      • Work or Fight Laws (Mother Jones called the “infamous slave bill”): A law was passed (again, the wealthy control of the government was no joke) that said: if you strike, you are automatically sent to the front line trenches. (177) The Governor veoted it but just take a moment to think about how that passed.
      • With company-owned towns, they were able to tell workers (who were paid in company script instead of real money and thereby forced to buy from company-owned stores [with marked up prices] and live in company-owned shacks [also marked up]) that allowing Mother Jones into their homes constituted trespass (on company property, remember). Indeed, the police would stand on the boundaries of the company-owned land. If she stepped one foot inside, she was arrested. If any workers pushed for change, they were immediately kicked out of their shacks, blacklisted, and without money.
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (first published in the UK, by Bloomsbury 1997. First US edition published by Scholastic in 1998)
    • I’ve started listening to a fabulous podcast that I fully recommend: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I also attended my first in-person meeting of their book club last week. So what does it mean to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text? Three things (per their site):
      • 1) trusting the text (“we practice the belief that the text is not ‘just entertainment’, but if taken seriously, can give us generous  rewards.
      • 2) rigor and ritual (“The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement”)
      • 3) reading it in community (“Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such. The same applies to us.”
    • Often times (and somewhat related to Book 54) it seems people are unwilling to fully embrace the things they love. There’s this desire to keep an ironic distance. While irony has its place in our lives and how we view our beliefs (see: Richard Rorty), there is also something incredibly valuable about loving something and pursuing its gifts in earnest. This podcast fully embraces this philosophy. I’ve learned so much from them and their subscribes (who call in). If you want to cultivate the virtues, this would not be a bad place to start the work. (and as they point out, becoming a better person is work)
  5. Speaking Freely: Whitney v. California and American Speech Law by Philippa Strum (University Press of Kansas 2015)
    • Unfortunately, no relation (as far as I know!)

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!