Tag Archives: philosophy

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.
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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!

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)

When Things Fall Apart

book coverPicked this one up randomly while at Strand Books in NYC last weekend. My knowledge of Buddhism, let alone Eastern philosophy, remains embarrassingly non-existent and since it’s been a few months since my foray into the field, I thought I’d give it a go.

This book is actually a collection of self-contained essays/musings on a variety of different topics that all have to do with … wait for it … things falling apart. Unlike Mark Epstein’s work, this collection struck me as more directly self-help(ish) and less about explaining Buddhism, the history, the philosophy, etc.

I’ve got a few essays left, but overall I’ve enjoyed it. It definitely assumes some prior familiarity with Buddhist concepts, so not recommended for a first in this space. Still, the reflections on identity, relationships, love (for others and self), anger, etc. are all so interesting and oddly absent in Western literature on those topics, which is a true loss for the West.

How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves

Book CoverRead 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.