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.
Editor in Chief
Martin Riker, The Guest Lecture
A campus novel without the campus, a novel of ideas about the failing infrastructures that used to support ideas, a confession of the academic soul that’s also a tragicomedy of the first-world political conscience: Riker’s novel is a dark, layered, yet somehow also buoyant reflection on how very damaged intellectual life can be. It takes place over one insomniac night in an ordinary budget hotel room, where Abby, an economist recently rejected for tenure, lays awake next to her sleeping husband and small child, anxiously running over material for a lecture she’s to give the next morning (on John Maynard Keynes) and, naturally, the dead-ended trajectory of her academic career (which may be, to some extent, Keynes’s fault), not to mention the whole course of her life thus far, a story, like anyone’s, full of contingency. Contingency for the newly contingent: among other things, Riker’s is a novel about waking up, all too early in the morning and all too late in history, to the end of the middle-class career. There’s fun to be had in Abby’s randomly associative mental clutter, taking in Simonides of Ceos, Sir Thomas More, Delia Derbyshire, and countless others; there are (for me at least) winces of recognition in the way she recalls the strategems and compromises of institutional existence, the makeshift ways domestic life gets wedged into and around work life, the difficulty of knowing just what intellectual ambition is supposed to look like now. But at the center of the novel is a dark, and complex, joke: what it means for Abby, and us, to return to Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” when it’s hard to see the long run running that long. Abby’s long night of mental wheel-spinning is about to come to an end. So are a lot of things.
Frank Andre Guridy
Sports Section Editor
Adolph L. Reed, Jr., The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
Adolph Reed Jr.’s latest is not one of his vintage combative salvos against what he has called “race reductionism.” In The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, the distinguished scholar activist offers an insightful historical meditation on quotidian life in the Jim Crow South. As a member of the last generation with direct experiences of Jim Crow racism, Reed spent much of his youth growing up in New Orleans and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Reed’s recollections reveal the complex negotiations involved in the maintenance of the Jim Crow social order. While the threat of violence was ever present, Reed highlights the protocols, etiquette, and scenarios that enabled racism to operate and even occasionally to be disrupted. The South is a welcome antidote to many current portrayals of the black experience as one that is overdetermined by an unchanging system of white supremacy from slavery to the present. Instead, the book is an important reminder of how power is exercised and challenged.
B-Sides Series Editor
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Le Guin’s most explicitly political novel does what Samuel Delany said science fiction is best at: literalizing metaphors. In 1974, First/Second/Third World was a twenty-year-old Cold War cliché. The Dispossessed accordingly charts the struggle between a rapacious capitalist First World (Urras) and a literal Second World, Annares, an impoverished, dusty moon to which the socialist/anarchists Odonians have been exiled.
Then in true Le Guin fashion it refuses and complicated that dyadic structure by centering the plot on a wandering physicist, Shevek. “He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his own society [of exile]. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two.” Shevek makes himself Third World of one—allowing the readers also to slip into that peripatetic role. I don’t know why, but after four decades of reading and rereading her, I can’t read about one of her characters leaving or coming home without tearing up. “True journey is return.”
The Dispossessed is the only novel I know that articulates an explicitly anarchist aesthetics—it illustrates and tries to exemplify an “anti-proprietarian” mode of thought, and of living. The only art objects described in The Dispossessed are “complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling.” These “Occupations of Uninhabited Space” float overhead, requiring no table space, soliciting no attention—but rewarding whatever contemplative attention viewers want to allot them. Like Le Guin’s preference for a wandering story that weaves in and out of time, these mobiles symbolize her lifelong search for a beautiful form that cheats human expectations of time, our obsession with telos, by revolving without evolving.
Higher Education Section Editor
Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways Toward Renewal and Reckoning
Higher ed workers are not okay. On the academic side of the house, faculty are being pushed to the limits of their capacities. Many root causes, including exploitation of contingent faculty, the privatization of higher education, and the pandemic, have resulted in high burnout rates across the professoriate. Rebecca Pope-Ruark offers an insightful look at faculty burnout, blending scholarship, case studies, and personal experience to uncover the ways that academic cultures run faculty into the ground. With case studies of faculty in a range of working conditions, Pope-Ruark captures some of the nuances of burnout that manifest in different ways for graduate student instructors, adjuncts, tenure-track faculty, and those with tenure. Reflection opportunities, suggested activities, and questions to consider sprinkled sparingly throughout the book prompt readers to consider changes they might make in their own professional lives to recover and chart a post-burnout path forward.
Systems and Futures Section Editor
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Given the recent brouhaha about Twitter, I was drawn back to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015), one of the early journalistic forays into social media and its effects. Written at a time when Twitter was used to draw widespread attention to powerful and bad actors, Ronson tells a history of public shaming as a disciplining tool. He concludes the book with a hope that social media will lend itself to our individual and collective development of self-regulation in knowing when and who to shame. But if Elon Musk has demonstrated anything through his takeover of Twitter, it is that now public humiliation is its own end; we live in a topsy-turvy version of Ronson’s hoped-for future. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed offers readers the utopia of a post-shame world—or at least a world where shame is sparingly felt—but if that’s the world we’re living in now, the consequences may be more dire than Ronson imagined.
Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor
Kelsey McKinney, Normal Gossip
I usually enthusiastically nod and blatantly lie, “I will add it to my list!” when friends recommend podcasts to me. However, when several friends told me to listen to the same episode of Normal Gossip about the drama that unfolded in a queer kickball league, I acquiesced—and proceeded to binge-listen to all three seasons (and bought a subscription to access “secret” episodes). Hosted by Kelsey McKinney and produced by Alex Sujong for Defector Media, Normal Gossip anonymizes tales of gossip for public consumption, constructing narratives such that the happenings in the nichest of subcommunities feel gripping, juicy, and utterly high stakes. In addition to sagas ranging from romantic fallouts in a gay men’s chorus to the “misdirection artists” (i.e., magicians) troupe that may or may not be a cult, each episode features McKinney and a guest chatting about gossip’s allure: its ability to disrupt systems of power, circulate subjugated knowledges, and provide pleasure, connection, and community. This friend of a friend of a friend highly recommends!