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.
Haruki Murakami has been among my favorite contemporary writers for nearly 20 years, since I read—and was captivated by—his novel “Kafka on the Shore” when it came out in 2002. His most recent collection of stories, “First Person Singular: Stories,” preserves his place in my personal pantheon. It may not be a positive confession, but I have always felt a connection with his typical male narrator: intelligent, observant and generally well-meaning and kind, but often clueless and befuddled. The narrator of the story “Cloud” in this collection is quintessentially Murakami:
So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.
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On the theme of “my favorites,” I again include the podcast “Poetry Unbound,” in which the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and then talks about a poem he loves in each episode. Ó Tuama’s discussions are never pedantic in the way that caused many of us to stop reading poetry after a high school teacher pulverized whatever interest we might have had in it. (Fortunately, I was not among those. I was blessed to have teachers who took genuine pleasure in the musicality and love of words in poetry.) In a recent podcast, he featured the poem “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. The poem itself, and Ó Tuama’s discussion of it, are a joy to listen to. From that poem:
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
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One of the joys of Sunday morning for me is reading the “By the Book” column in the New York Times Book Review. Each week, the column interviews someone (not always a writer, but always—or almost always—a passionate reader). Recently, the interviewee was the iconoclastic writer Lionel Shriver. Here is part of her answer to the question “How have your reading tastes changed over time?”
Although I appreciate distinctive style and turns of phrase, I’ve grown less interested in language for its own sake. That is, I resist acrobatic show-off prose and abstruse vocabulary (though is “abstruse” abstruse?) — and I’m more interested in skillful or artful language as a route to content. I don’t like detail for detail’s sake, either.
Though I am not as proud of it as she is, I share her growing impatience, and find myself saying, “Life is too short,” when I encounter the “acrobatic show-off prose” that exasperates her.
As evidence of her iconoclasm, here is a link to her 2016 speech about cultural appropriation, which the Guardian published. In that speech, she said:
. . .[B]oth as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
Amen to that.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Daniel Patrick Moynihan Remembered
NYT column (5/15/21): “Daniel Patrick Moynihan Was Often Right. Joe Klein on Why It Still Matters” by Joe Klein
Twenty-five years later, we live in a world that was Moynihan’s nightmare: Postmodern tribes—with their own fake “facts”—have gone virtual; affinity groups are organized by cable news networks and social media platforms. Cynicism about government’s ability to do anything useful abounds. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden’s postindustrial version of the New Deal—which Moynihan would have voted for enthusiastically, as it reduces inequality with a minimum of social engineering—will heal the wounds.
The Middle East
The situation in Israel and the Middle East continues to change so rapidly and significantly that articles I read only a week or two ago now seem out of date. Some of the more thoughtful articles I have read during that time may still have some relevance:
Washington Post (WP) column (5/23/21): “Netanyahu has more than the left to worry about” by E. J. Dionne Jr.
“Netanyahu is singularly responsible for driving an enormous wedge into American public opinion,” Connolly [U.S. Representative Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)] said. “It’s not about abandoning American support for Israel. It’s about policies we see as threatening Israel’s long-term viability as a democratic Jewish state, and about a right-wing lurch in Israeli politics.”
NYT column (5/25/21): “How the Mideast Conflict Is Blowing Up the Region, the Democratic Party and Every Synagogue in America” by Thomas L. Friedman
Therefore, I hope that when the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, he conveys a very clear message: “From this day forward, we will be treating the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a Palestinian state in the making, and we will be taking a series of diplomatic steps to concretize Palestinian statehood in order to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. We respect both of your concerns, but we are determined to move forward because the preservation of a two-state solution now is not only about your national security interests; it is about our national security interests in the Middle East. And it is about the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party. So we all need to get this right.’’
Being “Woke” and “Cancel Culture”
NYT column (5/25/21): “Is Wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats’?” by Thomas B. Edsall
Nadine Strossen, professor emerita at N.Y.U. Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote by email that she considers herself “a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ but even more important to me are the classic liberal values that are under siege from all sectors of the political spectrum, left to right, including: freedom of speech, thought and association; academic freedom; due process; and personal privacy.”
Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book, “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.” His list: “Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.
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For another perspective:
WP column (5/27/21): “When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’” by Michael Gerson
For [Frederick] Douglass, however, this founding crime did not discredit American ideals; it demonstrated the need for their urgent and radical application. He insisted that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.” He drew encouragement from the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and the “genius of American institutions.” He challenged the country’s hypocrisy precisely because he took its founding principles so seriously. How can you love a place while knowing the crimes that helped produce it? By relentlessly confronting hypocrisy and remaining “woke” to the transformational power of American ideals.
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And for yet another perspective on that topic, Robert Wright in his “Nonzero” Substack newsletter item, “The Truth about Darwin,” rebuts the vilification by some of Charles Darwin as an alleged apologist for racism and colonialism. In Wright’s view, Darwin sought only to explain, not to condone or rationalize.
He [Darwin] wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”
NYT column (5/27/21): “The Great Unmasking” by David Brooks
All around I see people determined to undo what Covid tried to do to us. Covid isolated us, but I see people thinking about how they can replace social distance with social closeness and social courage. I’m hoping to practice what a friend calls “aggressive friendship,” being the one who issues the invitations, reaches out first.
As David Brooks often does in his columns, here he expresses fine sentiments like this one about “aggressive friendship,” but he does so in a way that to me shows that he is oblivious to some of the larger and more troubling aspects of the environment we are living in. In this column and in the commencement speech on which it is based, he makes removal of his mask into an act of liberation, playing into the views of those whose animus against government, public health and science caused them to make masks a symbol of servitude. (Recently, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green compared mask mandates to the yellow star Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.) I am grateful to my masks for having helped keep me and my family and friends healthy this past year, and I think we should all be.