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Archive for the category “Literature”

The Apotheosis of Bob Dylan: A Hagiography

The Nobel Prize in Literature, that stuffy, hermetic institution, has managed to draw more mainstream interest, and controversy, than is usual for a literary prize. Part of this has to do with the fact that the dozen or so members of the Swedish Academy, the awarding body, has decided to “finally” nominate an American, a full 21 years after Toni Morrison, and only a few years after the Academy’s permanent secretary claimed that “Americans do not contribute to world literature or translation”, and thus would not be rewarded collectively or individually for the rest of our lifetimes. The winner of this year’s prize is a little-known poet from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman. However noble the attempt, it looks like another huge miss for the cloistered Scandinavian curators of international belles-lettres.

Joking aside, the reaction to the win by Bob Dylan seem to run the gamut, from unbridled passion to undisguised disgust. Those of the latter camp are either offended that the American in question was not named Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, or Thomas Pynchon, or that the Academy had stooped to honoring a mere musician, a writer of popular songs, rather than a novelist. Criticisms of the Nobel Committee have long been easy to generate, due to the loose wording of the original mandate by Alfred Nobel, the secrecy of the process, and the relative obscurity of many of the winners. For my part, I am as guilty as anyone else of unloading on the Prize every few years when the winner is someone from a non-English-speaking or Western European country who is almost wholly unknown to the world. My very first blog post was a modestly self-righteous little screed to that nature, which also included some of the long list of worthy authors never given the Nobel (Tolstoy!, Joyce!, Borges!, Nabokov!….), and in which I actually name-dropped Bob Dylan as worthy of the award. I have softened somewhat in my stance, partly due to wider reading, partly due to the realization that such a Prize is merely the subjective and arbitrary opinion of a small number of Swedes, and not an annual nomination of the greatest living author dictated by Zeus from Olympus. In fact, the Academy has an impossible job, and they seem to go about it in two ways: popular, well-known authors from English-speaking or Western European countries are occasionally given their due based on their life work (say, T.S. Eliot, or Saul Bellow); or, virtually “unknown” authors from Scandinavia or other parts of the world are awarded for their various contributions to literary tradition. For every Hemingway and Faulkner (category 1), there is a Mo Yan or Herta Müller (category 2). I have increasingly come to appreciate the “unknown” winners as much as the popular ones, even if I have not read any of them and, and most cases, never will. It is in many ways a courageous stance to take, and also a more universal one. The Nobel is the oldest and most prestigious international prize, and to only award people from a certain cultural or geographical background would be parochial, small-minded. Besides, it is a private award with its own internal logic and criteria and money, and they can do with it what they like.

He's got the look of a poet, and he knows it.

He’s got the look of a poet, and he knows it.

On that note, I would like to cast my lot with the applauders of the laureling of Bob Dylan. As far as I can tell, only 10 of the 113 winners of the Prize have been primarily poets. Dylan would be the 11th if we consider his lyrics as strictly poetry (though that would limit his underrated musical prowess). The most dominant literary form of the modern age is the novel, and the majority of the winners have been mostly or partly novelists. Dramatists make up a minority of the other winners (from George Bernard Shaw to Harold Pinter, including the strange choice of the Italian satirist Dario Fo), and there are also plenty of primarily non-fiction writers like historians (Mommsen and even (!)Winston Churchill) or philosophers (Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell; Sartre nobly declined his). Often the Prize is given for lifetime achievement, and only rarely is any specific work cited as a major reason for the award (Hemingway for Old Man and the Sea; Thomas Mann for Buddenbrooks). Following the dominant trend, Bob Dylan was cited for his unique poetic expressions “within the great American song tradition”, and not for any single work (therefore, it isn’t like one of those occasional Rolling Stone Magazine lists that names “Like a Rolling Stone the best rock song ever). Nevertheless, the chairperson of the Committee did issue a follow-up comment, and a possibly preemptive defense against detractors, saying the album Blonde on Blonde would be a good starting place to his work. This is strange in a way, since anyone at all familiar with Bob Dylan would necessarily be familiar with this album.

Against the resentful critics who are most likely issuing condemnations and diatribes against this award, I maintain that it is a brilliant and worthy move by the Swedish Academy. If literature is to be an artistic pursuit that prizes universality and creativity, why exclude songwriting? Poetry and music and the oldest of the literary arts. Oral communal performances of this art were one of the things that made humans into the civilized and social beings we are. Homer is the first personage to emerge from prehistory as the quintessential and foundational Western poet. I am happy that the Academy thus cited Homer and Sappho as part of the tradition that Bob Dylan has continued. Drama came much later than oral poetry and music and was perfected by the Greek trio of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; at the same time, History was invented (Herodotus and Thucydides) and Philosophy became systematic (Plato and Aristotle). The novel, despite being the dominant literary form for the past century or two, is still the newest and, in many ways, the most individual and anti-social of the literary arts. I don’t mean anti-social in the normal pejorative sense, but just that it is a solitary and silent pursuit, from the point of view of both the writer and reader (and as Hemingway explained in his Nobel acceptance speech).

Against the high-minded guardians of high culture and canonicity that populate our universities (apologies to Harold Bloom), songwriting, at its best, has the potential to combine the best aspects of our oldest traditions of poetry and music. If we were previously forced to immediately think of the musician or songwriter most likely or most deserving of a literary prize like the Nobel, the first person we would all think of would be Bob Dylan (Leonard Cohen would possibly be the second, slightly less qualified, one). Let me not exaggerate and compare Bob Dylan to Shakespeare or Walt Whitman, but if there were any musician whose universality, popularity, and creativity began to approach those lofty heights, it would be Bob Dylan. I would venture an unqualified guess that the work of Bob Dylan has been more universally influential, well-known, and appreciated than almost all of the recent Nobel laureates, and will also endure for as long as the best of them. On that note, I applaud the Nobel Committee who has given us a champion for the people, for artists, for humanity itself.

Bob Dylan, like a true artist, is unimpressed by presidents and prizes.

Bob Dylan, a true artist, is unimpressed by presidents and prizes.

Bob Dylan, a lifelong, inveterate anti-authoritarian is probably more bemused than anyone by his latest award. He has famously outmaneuvered everyone who ever thought they had a handle on him, constantly evolving, absorbing new styles and influences, and putting out a steady stream of utterly unique and unforgettable pieces of his own lyrical art. Bob Dylan’s is one of those rare artistic minds, like Picasso’s, that was not limited to a single category of mastery, and could not help but to constantly express new outpourings of artistic experimentation and boundary-shifting work. To those purists who are trying to defend the secret and arbitrary criteria that serve as the gateway to artistic greatness, Bob Dylan has outsmarted you, too, and certainly doesn’t even care what you or anyone else thinks and never has. He has been touring non-stop for 25 years, putting out new critically acclaimed albums, incorporating new styles, and still inspiring and influencing everyone around him (including, I daresay, untold numbers of fellow laureates in all fields). He is an artistic center of gravity and creative genius of power, fecundity, and timelessness in the way most writers not named Tolstoy or Joyce and most artists not named Picasso or Matisse could only dream of. Like Whitman, Bob Dylan contains multitudes. If the bestowal of this arbitrary prize brings him more attention from younger listeners who were not previously familiar with his work, that can only be considered a win for everybody. Listening to Bob Dylan makes us better people, and makes us remember that we are part of a complex but beautiful thing called life.

There is much more to say about the proper definition of literature and its role in society, just as there has always been much to say about Bob Dylan, the artist and the man. I will conclude here, however, with a list of my top 20 songs in no particular order. I am by no means one of those super-fans who knows every B-side and unreleased version of every song and has read all the biographies and tour mythology. For the most part my choices are obvious and not well thought out–little more than the greatest hits, really– and it would probably be easier to just recommend listening to his first seven albums in order and go from there. In any case, here’s my personal list:

  • My Back Pages
  • One of Us Must Know
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • Shelter from the Storm
  • Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
  • When I Paint My Masterpiece
  • Watching the River Flow
  • Positively Fourth Street
  • Series of Dreams
  • Brownsville Girl
  • Like a Rolling Stone
  • Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  • Desolation Row
  • Masters of War
  • When the Ship Comes In
  • The Times They Are A-Changin’
  • With God on Our Side
  • Not Dark Yet
  • Highlands
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The Dangerous Rise and Impending Collapse of Homo Sapiens

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“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

Attributed (probably falsely) to Jonas Salk

The good news is that most of the world has finally accepted that global warming is happening and is going to wreak havoc on our climate over the next 100 (or 100,000) years, and that something needs to be done collectively by world governments and industries to stop the worst of the changes from occurring. The bad news is that much of the climate change is already programmed in and will lead to large-scale disaster, and that the global human response, while increasingly encouraging, is still not nearly enough to make a dent in Mother Nature’s coming retribution. In this review, I will discuss two recent books that in different ways discuss how Homo sapiens have come to dominate the earth and its climate, and what this means for the future of our species and the planet. They are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) by Yuval Noah Harari, and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013) by Alan Weisman.

41tkxvARBtL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In the first book, Sapiens, Harari offers some novel takes on how and why modern humans became and remain the kings of the terrestrial castle. Human beings have been around in some form for about 2.5 million years, and even 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans were insignificant animals. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers, or bumblebees…Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?”

Harari spends the first chapter outlining a brief but lively summary of the biological evolution of the many various human species that we used to share the planet with. The key features, all with pros and cons, are our unusually big brains, our upright gait, and our social skills. He describes the consequences of our sudden leap to the top of the food chain 400,000 years ago: “Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

In this over 400-page book, Harari, a professor of biology in Jerusalem, continues to pour a wealth of information and theory on the readers without ever losing their interest. In the third chapter, he speculates that interbreeding between various human species was rare, and that Homo sapiens basically wiped out other species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, whenever they came into contact, most likely due to intolerance. “In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect, or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species?” Whatever the cause, the result is that Sapiens are left as the only survivors of the genus Homo, and a rare animal without any close relatives. Interestingly, Harari speculates how history might have happened differently had we had to coexist with other humansspecies. “How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?”

The reason Homo sapiens conquered the world, Harari claims, is above all its unique language. Around 70,000 years ago our ancestors left Africa for a second time and began to colonize the entire planet, a long march which only finished when the first humans reached New Zealand around 800 years ago. After leaving Africa, these Homo sapiens encountered and probably exterminated Neanderthals (and many other large animals), while at the same time developing a remarkable amount of new technologies over the next 400 centuries: boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, needles, as well as art and the first evidence of religion, commerce, and social classes. This Cognitive Revolution allowed for humans to think and communicate in new and sophisticated ways due to language use. The causes of this mental explosion are unclear, but Harari claims that it was most likely a genetic mutation that came from pure chance. (Compare the biologist E.O. Wilson here: “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck—good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever.”) As for language itself, he says that while many animals, including our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, use types of communication mostly for signaling danger or food, human language developed mostly as a way of gossiping. Besides this, he says that a further development of the Cognitive Revolution is the human ability to think and talk about things that do not exist–entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. “This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” The consequences of this fact were obviously enormous and dominate the rest of the book.

Harari continues to discuss how language ability allowed our ancestors to form larger social groups. “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together…Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” However, large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths, or fictions, which bind the group in ways that gossip cannot. This large-scale cooperation, derived from human language and imaginative thinking, is what led to the crucial cooperation of large numbers of people that gradually formed cities, empires, and conquered the planet. The consequences of this development lead us to the present-day and into the future. “As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees, and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations, and corporations.”

The next main point in the book is the transition from the long-standing tradition of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers to mostly stable villages of farmers. This happened with the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, and led to larger and more sophisticated societies. Harari spends a lot of time discussing the diversity of the ancient (and a few modern) forager bands and how dramatically their way of life differed from the agricultural one. Comparing the two groups, he claims interestingly that “The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” He speculates that average human brain size has actually decreased since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, since survival no longer requires the superb memory and mental abilities from everyone as in the foraging groups. Furthermore, foragers had physical endurance and dexterity that few humans achieve today. He presents us with a plethora of evidence which leads to his most interesting claim in the book, in my opinion: that ancient foraging humans had a happier and healthier life than the subsequent agriculturally dependent ones. The diet was wholesome and varied, the working week was relatively short and free time was much greater, and infectious diseases were rare. Meanwhile, most agricultural societies until quite recently have had to endure constant uncertainty over their crops, little variety of food, much more work, and more unhygienic conditions. This is not a new argument–Jared Diamond wrote an essay with the same conclusions in a controversial 1987 essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”–but it is still surprising and counter-intuitive. How could ancient humans have possibly had better or happier lives than most of their post-Agricultural Revolution descendants? The idea is not so surprising if we consider Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage, long thought to be erroneous, or examples such as the paradisal Polynesian tribe described by Herman Melville in Typee, or the many noble societies of American Indians like the Iroquois or the Lakota Sioux.

Harari continues with several chapters detailing the relationship between humans and animals, which has become more and more unequal in favor of the humans since the Cognitive Revolution. Basically, wherever modern humans have lived, extinction of large animals and plants has followed soon thereafter. The First Wave Extinction accompanied the spread of foragers, the Second Wave Extinction, more due to slash and burn agriculture and habitat loss than hunting, accompanied the farmers, and we are currently in the midst of the Third Wave Extinction, caused by our own all-consuming industrial activity. Giving perspective on this tragic history, Harari comments: “Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” This is especially important because “if we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive.” Besides the outright destruction of wild animal species by humans is the subjugation of domestic animals to the point of tragic absurdity: “It’s hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks…The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures.” Later, Harari comments on the current state of industrial farming, in which hundreds of billions of animals are raised in horrific conditions for a short time to be slaughtered for human consumption, calling it “a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth…and might well be the greatest crime in history.”

Moving closer and closer to the present, Harari presents us with a long series of historical examples about how human societies have changed and gradually unified, leading to the last of the three revolutions that drive the human narrative–the Scientific Revolution. Around 1500, science led to new knowledge which created new technology and fundamentally changed humans’ relationship to their environment and each other. Harari presents a huge number of case studies in politics, industry, exploration, religion, economics, artistic culture, and science that offer his personal interpretations and opinions on all of these areas. The book overall is abundantly full of intriguing information and details about the long rise of Homo sapiens and what it means for our present and future existence.

For me, by far the most fascinating chapters are the early ones discussing how Sapiens arose biologically from among many other primate and human species, leading to the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. This is the heart of the book taking us from the beginning of the world until around 12,000 years ago, and therefore the most theoretical, mysterious, and little-known even to people like me who have studied ancient history. As soon as Harari brings the narrative forward into the territory of recorded history, that is, since the first major Mesopotamian civilizations until the present, the book begins to become slightly more and more weighed down by the entropy of the overwhelming number of things discussed and the author’s increasingly over-arching and tendentious claims on all areas of human history and life. That is not to say that the book stops being interesting or that I even disagree with his ideas, but that the best part comes from Harari’s specialized knowledge of biology and the story of early human development. For a large part of the second half of the book, he is clearly less well-versed in the details of modern history and arts, or less concerned with scientific rigor and more with his own opinions. He plays fast and loose with his examples of economics (the 400-year development of capitalism, for example), wars, or historical events and how they relate to his big-picture history of the species. There are few (if any) authors who could successfully pull off such an ambitious and wide-ranging history of our entire species in proper detail from origin to the present, and if Harari falls short on the more recent history of humans that is nothing to scoff at. The philosopher Galen Strawson reviewed the book critically calling it a swashbuckling account, and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, men with whom I otherwise have little in common, have both included it on their own lists of favorite books (probably more for the final chapters speculating on the future of our species, i.e. artificial intelligence and other things that I have not discussed here, for my own reasons). Overall, Sapiens is a highly worthy book for anyone interested in human life, and it presents so much engaging information in a readable way that this should be recommended reading for any student of the sciences and humanities.


In the second book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, Alan Weisman spends no time discussing the history of the human race except insofar as it relates to the increasing population growth of our species. I am a big fan of Weisman’s previous book, The World Without Us, a long think-piece with a series of interesting case studies about what would happen to different ecosystems if humans suddenly disappeared. Countdown is the sequel, in which for over 500 pages Weisman follows the same pattern with a series of case studies of overpopulation in various countries and possible solutions that have been tried over the last century, and the consequences if we continue on this exponential trajectory.

countdownThe format of Countdown is to dive straight into the many local problems arising from an overpopulated world and beat us over the head, chapter after chapter, with the scope of the problem, without ever explicitly connecting the dots between all of the information. We are led to draw our own conclusions, but there is really only one proper inference to make after reading a few chapters of the book: human population growth is out of control and we need to do something about it before we destroy most of the planet’s other inhabitants and resources.

Such a book obviously does not skirt around controversy but confronts it head-on. Thus, the first chapter brings us straight to Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestine conflict.  “Arafat’s biology bomb” was the way locals referenced the demographic split of the divided territory. Palestinians have many more children than Israelis and so put more pressure on an already intractable political situation. Weisman discusses the recent history of walls, intifadas, agriculture, religion, and many other things relevant to the conflict, but the simple thesis comes down to the fact that too many humans are trying to live in a small area without enough resources, which is called carrying capacity, an updated version of the old Malthusian argument. This will become a repetitive theme throughout the book as Weisman visits at least 20 countries and interviews hundreds of scientists, politicians, families, and scholars. The book is basically extended reportage based around the author’s own travels and interviews, and he gives few of his own overt opinions in favor of presenting us an overwhelming number of data that leads to the incontrovertible fact that there are too many humans.

Weisman constantly grapples with the question of how many people Earth can reasonably support versus how many people there will be due to the weight of current demographic trends. We are already well over 7 billion, and most estimates say that we will reach 10 billion by 2050, and could peak as high as 15 billion by the end of the century. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, famous for their 1968 book The Population Bomb, have calculated the ideal human population to be 1.5 billion. The Ehrlichs and their younger colleague named Gretchen Daily are the most recurring characters in the book, and it is clear that their decades of work on the population problem has made an great impact on the author.

The book is fairly bleak, but I cannot imagine it being any other way given the scope of the problem it treats with. Just a few of the many topics covered at a brisk pace are China’s one-child policy, forced sterilizations, different kinds of contraception available in different countries, religious opposition to contraception, agricultural innovation and genetic modification, AIDS, and gorillas. Ultimately, after discussing every kind of recent example of population control on every continent in great detail, Weisman offers no specific solutions, but presents us with a choice: “I don’t want to cull anyone alive today. I wish every human now on the planet a long, healthy life. But either we take control ourselves, and humanely bring our numbers down by recruiting fewer new members of the human race to take our places, or nature is going to hand out a pile of pink slips.”

Countdown is similar to Harari’s Sapiens in its enormous wealth of information across many fields (its impressive bibliography attests to its rigorous research), and its generally negative tone about the rise of humans and our ability to deal with the world we have created. Sometimes the truth hurts, and if it’s necessary for us to realize that we are collectively responsible for the extinction of our closest living relatives and countless other species we cohabited the planet with, and that our ever-growing numbers and unsustainable lifestyles are dooming even our own existence, then these two books should be required reading for every politician, business leader, teacher, and student. We are a problem-solving species and the undisputed rulers of the earth, but the countdown has indeed begun for Homo sapiens and there is no resetting the clock.

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What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

Why Black Literature Matters

“The Thankful Poor”, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894

(Originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Last month in The Atlantic, Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Al Aswany wrote an excellent essay on How Literature Inspires Empathy. He gives an example from a sentence in Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (“He, also, had a mother”) to show how a single word makes the reader see a criminal and prisoner in a whole new light. As Al Aswany explains, “the role of literature is in this ‘also’. It means we’re going to understand, we’re going to forgive, we’re not going to judge. We should understand that people are not bad, but they can do bad things under particular circumstances.” Later, after mentioning how Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary help us sympathize with and not judge those titular unfaithful wives, he writes “Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.” There is a case to be made that Dostoyevsky is not an author who always aspires much empathy in his readers (especially when compared to his counterpart Tolstoy). Likewise, it is impossible to claim that reading literature always improves the reader, which is just not the case.

My main interests of study and research have always been history, philosophy, and literature. I have two degrees in history, which helps me learn about and understand the world. Philosophy helps me think about the world, sometimes too abstractly, as it is and ought to be. But literature is a way of feeling, understanding, and connecting with humanity in all its various guises on a personal and emotional level. It is a continuation of the oldest human activity of storytelling. I would argue that not only is literature at least as important as the other arts and sciences, including history and philosophy, but, at its best, it is one of the central things that symbolizes our shared humanity and, in the process of both absorbing old and creating new literature, shapes us as human creatures.

One reason for this is that, despite some self-appointed guardians of what constitutes high culture (or snobbish protectors of an exclusive and immutable “canon”), literature is and always has been primarily a form of popular entertainment appealing to people from all walks of life. We think of Shakespeare, rightly, as an almost godlike literary creator central to Western literature; in reality, a large part of his plays just barely survived in written form only through the foresight of two contemporaries who produced the Folios. If not for this, Shakespeare might today be known only to scholars as an Elizabethan playwright whose enormous popularity was due mostly to the lower and middle classes enjoying his over-abundance of wittily crude sexual jokes and double entendres.

According to my own rough formulation, all literature can probably be grouped into two categories based on the motives of both author and reader: escapism, and edification. Most genre literature falls under escapism–fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, historical fiction, romance, western, travel, etc. The somewhat smaller range of books that intend to represent broad universal truths, dig into a particular philosophical discourse, or teach some important life lesson to the readers about the world fall under the category of edification–these are usually the “classics” that are reread by every generation of reader. It is important to note that there is overlap between the two categories; that is, every type of escapist “genre” literature has its own exemplars of great literature due to the skill and depth of the writing. Tolkien is considered the greatest of the fantasy writers, and his work transcends that genre and becomes something valuable and worthy for all readers (I don’t know if the Harry Potter series can be seen the same way since I have never read it; readers can let me know in the comments section). Similarly in science fiction, Asimov is one of the writers who pushed the boundaries of his genre into something greater and more universal. Most of Jane Austen’s novels are basically simple romance (just like all Shakespeare’s comedies), but that does not mean they are not also edifying literature in some capacity. I do not intend to attempt any wider comparisons on this theme of two types of literature, but I would be interested to read about other examples that come to mind (once again, you can let me know in the comments section).

Coming broadly around from this digression to my main point, literature can do many things, and one of the most important of these, to my mind, is to inspire empathy–something which has never been overly abundant in the world but which there can never be too much of. Because of the unique merits of literature, it has a power to reach people on a raw or emotional level that is rare in other media. In the most extreme end of the spectrum, it can cause readers to be so affected as to kill themselves in droves, as with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. It can convey the feeling of shared humanity, such as Prince Andrei felt while mortally wounded on the field of Borodino in War and Peace. It can make us understand the lives of people who are totally different from us, and who we would otherwise never know anything about. This is especially true of the books by people who in the past were never represented in literature due to political and social circumstances– slavery, colonialism, poverty, and other exploitations. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is considered the first important modern novel by an African writer, which shows the African rather than the European perspective of a Joseph Conrad or a Graham Greene. A similar example is the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novels Weep Not, ChildThe River Between, and A Grain of Wheat, which describe the hardships of colonial Kenyan life and the Mau Mau rebellion in a much different way than the more idealized European vision of a Karen Blixen.

A writer does not have to be one of the excluded minorities or oppressed in order to write about them. Alan Paton was a white liberal South African who worked for penal reform in his country and founded the South African Liberal Party (which was outlawed by the Apartheid regime). His book Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a poor Zulu priest who makes a Dantean journey to Johannesburg to look for his missing sister and son. It is one of the most emotionally charged books I have read, and a book that cannot fail to create a strong sense of empathy in the reader for the injustices of racism in South Africa (and, by extension, the whole world).


“Black Lives Matter” is a new civil rights movement for Black people in America after the seemingly endless cases of police murder and injustice that have recently proven the existence and depth of entrenched systemic racism in the America of the First Black President. The reactionaries and enablers of injustice that have decried this movement say that it foments violence (it does not) or disregard for White people’s lives (it does not). Despite the unique promise of its founding, America is a country whose relatively short history has had more than its share of horrific and unforgettable injustice. After decades or even centuries of hard-fought activism slowly bending the arc of history towards justice, much of the past has indeed been forgotten or misrepresented. In school textbooks, I fear that much of the true history is at least partially white-washed, if not completely elided. The two grossest examples are the 400-year genocide of the Native Americans, and the 300-year terror regime of Black slavery. Both of these things allowed the United States to grow into the wealthy and powerful country it is today, and the latter’s influence on the society and politics of 21st century America is still quite strong and cannot be forgotten, diminished, or excused. For every romantic apology for the South (such as the novel and film Gone With the Wind) or for every apologist who claims that slavery was “not so bad” for the slaves, there must be someone who refutes them immediately with the truth. If someone claims that things are fine for Black people now because of the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action, they need to understand that such relatively feeble legislation has barely put a dent in the centuries of heart-breaking brutality and relentless economic exploitation.

Luckily, there is a strong recent tradition in America of Black writers telling stories that could never have been told even 100 years ago. For anyone doubting that White privilege is real or that Black Lives have not mattered as much as White Lives in America, I would recommend some of these books more than any history book. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I was thinking mostly of fiction–novels, specifically–as the focus of this piece, but there are numerous examples of literary non-fiction–especially autobiographies–that are worth reading and have lessons to teach: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. More than the superficiality of film and the flatness of art and photography, the depth of characterization, psychology, tragedy, and emotion contained in such literature can do more to create awareness of the joy and tragedy of human lives and inspire deep and long-lasting empathy for other people.

In Al Aswany’s article, he comments that “I don’t think literature is the right tool to change the situation right now. If you would like to change the situation now, go out into the street. Literature, to me, is about a more important change: It changes our vision, our understanding, the way we see. And people who are changed by literature, in turn, will be more capable to change the situation.” There is often a strong connection between writers and political activism, which has been especially clear in the case of writers coming from traditionally suppressed minority backgrounds; James Baldwin was a lifelong fighter for social and racial justice, and Alice Walker famously declared that “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

In a time when Liberal Arts and humanistic studies are coming under criticism for not being apparently linked to “real-world” skills, and budgets for education are being cut across the board, we need to ask ourselves if there are things important in society beyond profit-making. Is nation-building and money-making the most important thing in society, more than the lives of people it exploits? Are some people in society just a means for others and not an end in themselves? How can we enrich our culture and society to be not only good citizens but empathetic fellow humans? Reading literature is no panacea, but is certainly something that can do no harm. Only in such a world where we understand and feel compassion for people outside our own circle can a statement such as Black Lives Matter be both a true assertion and a reality. Where kids and teenagers are not murdered by the police for no reason other than that they were Black, where refugees and immigrants would be universally welcomed rather than treated like lower life forms. Only in a more empathetic world of shared humanity is this possible.

Two Novels by Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle and My Name is Red

When I was living in Russia, I found a book left in my apartment by a previous tenant called Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I knew of the author because he had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years earlier in 2006. Unfortunately, after a few pages I put the book down, not because of any lack of quality on the book’s part, but because I could not really concentrate on reading a book entitled Snow while in the midst of a harsh Russian winter. This same thing had happened to me at least one time earlier, when I was in Afghanistan in 2007 for a 15-month deployment with the U.S. Army. I picked up the much-praised book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini from a shelf and started to read a few pages. I could not continue because at that point I wanted my pleasure reading to take me far from Afghanistan, not delve further into it. Reading habits and moods change over time, and I would normally say that it is important to not give up on books too soon. By chance, this year I remembered Orhan Pamuk and, fortunately, I can say that it was well worth my reading time. I will review his early novel The White Castle and his masterpiece My Name is Red.

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk is Turkish, hailing from the great city of Istanbul. His heritage is Circassian, one of those myriad peoples from the Caucasus that were nearly destroyed and then deported by the expanding Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pamuk, similarly to many intellectuals and free speech advocates before him, was charged and tried for remarks he made in 2005 that allegedly “insulted the honor of Turkey and Turkishness”. What he actually said, speaking about the WWI-era conflict between Turkey and its eastern neighbors, was that “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here [Turkey], and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” The charges were eventually dropped, but this is indeed a sad state of affairs when in a country like Turkey a prominent writer (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot publicly state a proven historical fact without facing charges for denigration not of a living person but of an idea (Turkish national pride). Furthermore, in Turkey it is illegal to insult the name of Kemal Atatürk–I admire Atatürk and his great achievements, but such a counter-production restriction on free speech cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize a year later as the youngest winner (aged 54) since Joseph Brodsky in 1987 (aged 47), and only the second winner ever from a Muslim country (after the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz in 1988).

white-castle-2The White Castle, published in 1985, is set in 17th century Istanbul, a time when the Turks had long since stopped being invincible to the Europeans, and were actually in the midst of gradual long-term decline while the West was resurgent. The narrator is an Italian scholar who is captured by the Turkish fleet while sailing from Venice to Naples and becomes a slave in Istanbul. He claims to be a doctor and in fact his invented cures work so well that he is noticed by a powerful Pasha. He then comes under the control of a man known as Hoja (“master” in Turkish) who has an almost unbelievable physical resemblance to the narrator as well as being a scientist and scholar. The two men work closely together for decades on scientific and military projects and engage in philosophical discussions and competitions, always from their positions as slave and master. The titular fortress is one besieged by the Turkish forces in a doomed campaign against the Poles. Hoja spent years developing a great new tank-like weapon without help or advice from his Italian slave and convinced the Sultan to take it on campaign, which greatly slowed the progress of the Turkish advance. Things do not go according to plan and the master and slave depart ways permanently. The ending is somewhat predictable but still very intriguing and well done.

From the very beginning of the book I felt that it shared a great affinity of style and theme with fellow postmodern writers Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, all of whom were heavily influenced by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, something of the story, style, and setting of Pamuk’s novel reminded me of Eco’s Baudolino. The book relies on the strength of its intellectual questioning more than the force of the actual narrative. There are many literary tools that seem to come from the Borges “kit”: a frame story written by a fictional historian, an unreliable narrator, the theme of the double or alter ego, and the ambiguity of identity and self. There are also themes which are particular to Pamuk: the conflict between East and West, specifically between the world of Islam and Christianity, the different rates of scientific and cultural development and modernization of the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West, and fraternal jealousy and competition.

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

My Name is Red, published in 1998, is set in Ottoman Istanbul in the year 1591, a century earlier than The White Castle during the reign of the Sultan Murat III, a great patron of the arts. It takes place over the course of nine winter days and tells the story of a workshop of competing artists, one of whom was murdered, and the detective work by one of their former members to find the criminal. There is also a delicate love story between the main character, Black, and his beautiful widowed cousin, Shekure. The book runs many different simultaneous threads: the main one being the building suspense of the search for the murderer, the love story which also involves Shekure’s aggressive brother-in-law, and a richly ornamented commentary on Islamic art and poetry. The rival artists, whose names are Olive, Stork, Butterfly, and Elegant, are miniaturists of the style brought to Turkey by way of China and Persia, and which is opposed to the traditional Islamic art of calligraphy. One of the most well-known stories in Persian literature is “Khosrow and Shirin” by the poet Nizami, which was a popular subject for these miniaturist painters (in this book Pamuk uses the Turkish spelling Hüsrev and Shirin). This story is alluded to throughout the novel and mirrors that of Black and Shekure. Many other classics of Persian or Ottoman art and literature, such as Firdawsi’s epic Book of Kings, are discussed at length and influence a large part of the plot.

Each chapter in the novel is narrated in the first-person by a different character. It begins with the recently murdered man’s monologue, and includes almost all of the characters in the book and even a dog, a coin, and the color red. The book also uses metafiction and frequently plays on the idea that reader knows more than the characters. This is once again reminiscent of the postmodern Borgesian style. The story also strongly reminded me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in that they are both very intellectual and suspenseful murder mysteries set in medieval times and play on the jealousies and rivalries between men in a fraternal order. Overall, it was an extremely stimulating page-turner crafted with rare depth and skill. My reading list is long and I rarely have time or interest to reread books, but this will be an exception. In the meantime, now that my reading habits have changed again (and I live in sunny Italy rather than cold Russia), I can try again with Pamuk’s novel Snow.

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