Here 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.
Nicholas Sammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation
Nicholas Sammond’s Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation shows that Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Bugs Bunny were not like blackface minstrels—they were blackface minstrels. Reading this book will forever change your view of how these cartoon characters look and act. Sammond is particularly illuminating on the close ties linking vaudeville and early animation, and on the complex relationship that animators themselves had to the characters they created, particularly when it came to representing their respective relationships to work and violence.
Guido Morselli, Dissipatio H.G.
Morselli’s final book, completed scant months before his suicide in 1973, is a variously rewarding and indisputably sophisticated thought experiment about the sudden, inexplicable end of the genus Homo as related by the world’s last man: an ascetic and self-described reactionary misanthrope who rather than turn forty elects to drown himself in a mysterious mountain cave, only to return to the world as its sole remaining human inhabitant.
Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest
Though I’m only partway through it, this is a fascinating and novel account of how electrification fits in to the picture of urban growth in the desert Southwest. Needham looks at the long-distance power lines that join electrical consumers in modern Phoenix to remote sites of energy production: coal mines and power plants on the Navajo Reservation. To me, this is mainly a story about how large-scale energy systems create a geographic separation between the costs and benefits of electrification, and the fact that rural and indigenous communities are often forced to contend with the negative environmental consequences of a system that primarily serves urban centers. Power lines, in other words, are not only technologies of connection but also ones of unequal social and political power.
Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality
As famous and well-respected as he is now, Einstein became somewhat of a sad relic in academia during the latter part of his life. He had kicked off the new science of quantum mechanics during his “miracle year” of 1905, showing how light could be both a particle and wave (which, by the way, was the work that earned him his Nobel prize, rather than his more famous theories on gravity and spacetime), but became obstinate and reactionary when the theory expanded into stranger (or even stranger) new territories. Manjit Kumar follows this trajectory, of both Einstein and the development of quantum mechanics, in his excellent Quantum. In it, he wonderfully combines personal narrative with scientific history, and shows how a generation of scientists came to so radically overthrow centuries of Newtonian determinism.
Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters
Whatever your feelings on Ted Hughes as a man, no one could deny that these poems are as stunning as they are devastating. Hughes renders his life with Sylvia Plath with sympathy, curiosity, fatigue, and even cruelty at times, using images and language that continue to catch my breath and linger long after finishing the poem. In the end, he doesn’t just paint a nuanced, layered image of his wife as a poet and a tortured woman, but reveals his own mind to the reader.
Phillip K. Dick, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
This posthumously published work is a PKD novel outside the sci-fi genre. Set in 1960s Oakland, the narrative centers on Jim Fergesson’s decision to sell his garage, which seriously inconveniences his tenant Al Miller, a used-car salesman. Both men tend towards paranoid fantasies and intense suspicion of one another. Both develop separate business-relationships with a shady investor named Chris Harmon, upon whom each projects wild fantasies of success, wealth, and personal autonomy. My sense is that this work is a deep and somewhat esoteric cut from PKD’s oeuvre, and is worth checking out if only for that reason.
Lucas Mann, Lord Fear: A Memoir
I recently picked up Lucas Mann’s grief memoir about his older brother Josh who died of a heroin overdose when the author was 13. Citing his brother’s old journals, as well as seemingly endless interviews with Josh’s friends, family, and former girlfriends, Mann tries to show us how many people and places it takes to remember one absent person fully and accurately. Although it is personal, Lord Fear is also a heavily reported book whose incredible exploration of memory proves that remembering anything fully and accurately is impossible. With this work, Mann reminds us that grieving, like remembering, is often a collaborative act.