On Our Nightstands: April 2020

A behind-the-scenes look at what Public Books editors and staff have been reading this month.

At Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles. But when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.


Carolyn Dever

Higher Education Section Editor


Freeman A. Hrabowski III, with Philip J. Rous and Peter H. Henderson, The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success


“Culture Change Is Hard as Hell.” So goes the title of chapter three of the recent book by the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Freeman Hrabowski III. President Hrabowski: you are spot-on, and your point cannot be emphasized enough. As all observers of complex organizations know, culture trumps strategy every time. For those of us who care about colleges and universities, their students, staff, and faculty; who care about the future of higher education, the promise it realizes, and the equity it can help to advance; “culture” is often the place where well-intentioned strategies go to die.

Hrabowski has led UMBC through a period of transformative change noteworthy on US campuses. In The Empowered University, he describes a theory of shared leadership within a campus culture that is proudly aspirational, driven by clear mission and values: people first; shared governance; innovation and risk taking; and “inclusive excellence,” the improvement of academic success for all students.

Hrabowski’s UMBC is a great story not of a university’s corporatization but its humanization; not of its efficiencies but its intentions, successes, failures. Hrabowski advances an important model of “shared leadership” in The Empowered University. He lives this value with a coauthored book, his collaboration that includes UMBC provost Philip J. Rous and Hrabowski’s senior advisor Peter H. Henderson. And he also demonstrates its potential risks, since all three voices are rolled up into one perspective, “Hrabowski.”



Max Holleran

Urbanism Section Editor


Wendy Lesser, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn


Writing a biography of an architect is difficult: they’re cranky and often authoritarian, lots of them produce their best work when they’re senior citizens (making the first part of the bio hard to parse out), and their main products are visual and experiential. None of that has stopped Wendy Lesser from writing an extraordinary biography of Louis Kahn. You Say to Brick is one of the most imaginatively rendered biographies in recent memory. Starting with Kahn’s birth in Estonia, it saves a traumatic childhood event for the end while intersplicing vivid walkthroughs of Kahn’s architecture. The book, like Kahn’s structures, is an unfolding masterpiece: a modest entrance and several corridors lead to a giant atrium of insight on artistic inspiration and modernist design.



John Plotz

B-Sides Series Editor


Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted


How much Joan Didion is too much? When I moved to California right out of college, I got high on her sentences. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the exchange between two Haight-Ashbury dropouts: “Tell about the chores.” “Yeah, for instance there were chores”). Or Maria’s time-massacring highway drives in Play It as It Lays: “Sometimes the freeway ran out … When that happened she would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her.” Somehow, though, after Democracy—closest thing I know to a late 20th-century Joseph Conrad novel—I’d had it with her glacial calm, the way everything ran entropically down to zero. Her works seemed to me like a car crash, filmed in slow-mo but guaranteed to end only one way: blood, police sirens, body bag.

Then last month I picked up The Last Thing He Wanted, her 1996 novel (now a Anne Hathaway / Ben Affleck film) about the Reagan administration’s covert funding of the Nicaraguan Contras, oh-so-many scandals ago. Damn, but she can write. Beyond that—possibly I had to be middle-aged to appreciate this side of her—she is amazingly sensitive to the way that any set of present actions derives from the unrecoverable, sometimes unacknowledged past that dogs every character, that haunts the future with ghostly past mistakes. The journalist at the novel’s heart is running the wrong errand at the wrong time for a father who may have wanted the best for her but wanted it wrong, and went about it wrongly. Meaning she can be right in what she sees, and almost right in what she does at every moment, and yet be blind and dumb at last. Didion casts a cold eye on just about everything, so you remember the rare moments of warmth, when she lets them kindle.


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Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas


I often find it difficult to write about people who hold political views that are diametrically opposed to my own. The closer the people get to the historical present, the harder it gets. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the desire to pillory their arguments; at other times the difficulty lies in grasping the arguments themselves. But Corey Robin, a political theorist at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, has made a career out of understanding—and helping the rest of us understand—the political ideas that are most morally and intellectually anathema to the left. His first two books—Fear: The History of a Political Idea and The Reactionary Mind—showed, in part, how elites mobilized ideas and arguments in the service of preserving their status atop various kinds of political hierarchies. His latest book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, narrows the focus of his eloquently written and forcefully argued style of intellectual history to a single, often overlooked conservative thinker who is still very much with us today. But in narrowing the focus, Robin also expands his methodology. His book on Thomas is a remarkable synthesis of biography, jurisprudence, critical race studies, political sociology, institutional history, and so much else. It’s also truly an amazing piece of writing.



Jess Engebretson

Editorial Fellow


Eamon Grennan, Relations


Having retreated progressively indoors over the past month, I’ve found companionship in the Irish poet Eamon Grennan’s collection Relations. Often described as a nature poet, Grennan is an equally acute observer of what we might call quarantine life: a bowl of porridge, a basket of laundry, trapped flies battering a window like “stunned ballerinas.” The pleasure of these poems is the depth of attention they offer to everyday rhythms: domestic life rendered “luminous in ordinary light,” as he puts it in “Kitchen Vision.” Yet the comfort of home, in this collection, is often haunted by barely named threats. In “Incident,” an apparently festive occasion—boiling lobsters for dinner—leaves an unsettling trace: clearing the broken shells, the speaker can’t shake the feeling of the creature’s death spasm, which “eels up [his] arm” again and again. In “Soul Music: The Derry Air,” the unexpected flowering of potted plants evokes resurrection—but their leaves, “like oiled arrowheads,” recall the potential violence of soldiers patrolling outside. Mundane comforts, edged with a shifting unease: good reading for this strange, cloistered new world. icon