Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books Read in July

July felt like a busy month for reading.

Great Books, by David Denby - I chanced on this book while at a used bookstore.  Denby is a film critic who had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to go back to school and take some humanities classes at Columbia.  He'd taken them years before but couldn't remember the impact of the various readings so he went back.  The results are quite book.
This book is arranged, chapter by chapter, by which author is being read.  This allows Denby to concentrate on what he read and how it affected him.  He also talks quite a bit about the war on 'dead white men'.  His conclusion is that the readings of the western canon are too much in conflict and invite too much self inspection to be ably accused of setting up hegemony.  I quite agree.
Night, by Elie Wiesel - I've had this book on my shelf for years but had never read it.  When I heard of Wiesel's death, I finally made time to do so.  'Night' is Wiesel's account of being rounded up and taken into the Jewish holocaust.  It starts with ignoring a warning from an escapee and takes him through various camps.  Near the end, death is everywhere.
'Night' is like a punch to the gut.  The experience related is so incredibly awful.  Wiesel writes not only about the physical atrocities but also about his loss of faith and larger humanity.  Fathers and sons are destroyed and destroyed so completely that they have trouble caring if the other survived.  Incredible book.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehsi Coates - This is the most recent of the books that I read in July and it seemed almost taken from the headlines.  Coates has written a booklength letter to his son about the problems he will have growing up as a black man.  The biggest problem is that his physical safety will be at risk because of a society that doesn't care about the safety of black men.
This book is something of a personal history as Coates narrates how his approach to the world was created.  It's touching and eye-opening.  I was reading this while two very high profile deaths of black men by police happened.  While I didn't agree with everything written here, Coates is right that this part of the system is absolutey broken.  Very well worth reading.
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf - This choice was inspired by Denby's 'Great Books'.  Back in 1928, Woolf was asked to give a lecture on 'Women and Fiction'.  She made up the lightly fictionalized experience of a 'Mary Beton' and talked about how women were systematically excluded from the broad opportunities of school and learning.  She shares how the simple expedient of having some dependable money to live on and a room of one's own are the minimal keys to allow someone to write.  She then explores how rare these opportunities have been for women.
The most devastating part of this lecture to me was an extended thought experiment on how a sister of Shakespeare would have been treated.  Her poetic talents wouldn't have been fed through schooling.  She would have been forced to marry by her parents.  Even if she'd run away to the big city (like William did), she wouldn't be able to work in the theater.  And if her trying to do so, her chastity was lost, she could end up being fully rejected by society.
This was also a great read.

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