Editor’s Note: The Sun’s Reader at Large, a.k.a. David Goodman, dedicates his leisure to reading voraciously and eclectically about politics, government, society, culture and literature. Every two weeks or so, the Sun will post for your pleasure and edification the Reader’s digest (pun intended) of some of the best and most thought-provoking articles, books and podcasts that Goodman has recently enjoyed. Please note that the italicized text is quoted and that some of the linked articles may be in publications that impose a pay wall. Neither the Sierra County Sun nor the Reader at Large endorses all the views expressed in the featured books and articles.
In a lifelong learning course I am taking on Faulkner, we are focusing on “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom.” In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature for these and other novels. At the end of his acceptance speech he memorably said:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
New York Times (NYT) By the Book interview with Olivia Laing, author of the new book “Everybody: A Book About Freedom.”
“What writers are especially good on the politics of the body?” Laing was asked.
Over the five years that I was writing “Everybody,” I read hundreds of books on the body so I give this list with some confidence. Deep breath: Andrea Dworkin, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X and our old friend Sigmund Freud. The novels and not-novels of Marguerite Duras and Angela Carter are always acute about women’s physical and especially sexual lives. Sarah Kane gets down to the marrow in a cheerless way; you might want to chase her with Joe Orton for a bit of levity. Alison Light’s “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants” is astonishing on the complex interrelations between bodies and class, bodies and gender. I read it just as I was finishing “Everybody,” and it really got under the skin, so to speak, of the kind of horror bodies can engender, and the kind of cruelties it can lead to.
In a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, “Poetry Unbound,” poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and discusses the poem “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella” by former poet laureate of Jamaica Lorna Goodison. I will avoid a spoiler and not quote here the haunting last line of Columbus’s description to the Spanish monarch of what he “discovered” in Jamaica, “the fairest isle that eyes ever beheld.”
Washington Post (WP) column (4/19/21): “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe” by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate
Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.
The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue.
This brings to mind the response of African-American journalist Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow’s snide, patronizing and parochial question:
“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—Bellow
“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”—Wiley
A Howard administrator and professor responded to Cornel West and Jeremy Tate in the New York Times: “There’s No Classics ‘Catastrophe’ at Howard University” (5/2/21) by Brandon Hogan and Jacoby Adeshei Carter. Dr. Hogan is the director of undergraduate studies and Dr. Carter is the chairman of the philosophy department at Howard. They are both H.B.C.U. graduates.
There is no spiritual catastrophe unfolding on Howard’s campus. Quite to the contrary, our campus, students and faculty are in the midst of a Renaissance replete with all the accompanying spiritual and intellectual affirmations. The administration decided to eliminate the classics department, but it also started majors in interdisciplinary humanities (which incorporates classical studies courses), bioethics, international affairs, and environmental studies.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Biden Administration Challenges
Guardian column (4/16/21): “Can Joe Biden make America great again?” by Fintan O’Toole
There are, of course, many basic ways in which Biden must indeed restore the idea of a government of laws, not of men. The rule of law itself has to be re-established after Trump’s flagrant delinquency, corruption and treachery. The commitment to competence and expertise, so wilfully trashed by Trump, has to be renewed. The tools of democratic deliberation—truthfulness and evidence-based rationality—have to be refashioned.
Climate Change and Fear-Mongering about Beef
NYT column (4/26/21): “Beer, Brussels Sprouts, Bernie Madoff and Today’s G.O.P.” by Paul Krugman
The goal is to portray Democrats as woke feminist vegetarians who don’t share the values of Real Americans. Hence the right’s obsessive focus on “cancel culture” and Democratic women of color, and the continual assertions that the white male senior citizen who leads the party is somehow a passive puppet.
Washington Post (WP) column (4/28/21): “Substack wants to disrupt reading habits. Will its newsletters upend newspapers?“ by Megan McArdle
“Our model is that the attention economy we’re giving our lives to is a mistake,” Chris Best, Substack’s co-founder and CEO, told me. “We need to have a different model with different rules.” Instead of competing for algorithmic engagement with clickbait, authors can build a long-term relationship with the readers who support them.
Race and Statues
NYT column (4/30/21)): “Some Statues Tell Lies. This One Tells the Truth” by Timothy Egan
Replacing the statue of Marcus Whitman, an inept Protestant missionary who tried to Christianize the natives (as Whitman might have put it), with a Native American who was arrested more than 50 times for practicing his treaty rights to fish for salmon is a karmic boomerang. Statues, especially those in the sacred space holding the Capitol’s collection, where each state is given only two, are national narratives set in stone.
Native Americans and Our National Parks
The Atlantic article (May 2021): “Return the National Parks to the Tribes: The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples” by David Treuer
In 1914, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that American democracy was forged on the frontier. It was there that the uniquely American mixture of egalitarianism, self-reliance, and individualism commingled to form the nation and its character. “American democracy,” he said, “was born of no theorist’s dream. . . . It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Turner was almost right. It wasn’t the frontier that made us as much as the land itself, land that has always been Native land but that has also come to be American. The national parks are the closest thing America has to sacred lands, and like the frontier of old, they can help forge our democracy anew. More than just America’s “best idea,” the parks are the best of America, the jewels of its landscape. It’s time they were returned to America’s original peoples.