Here at Public Books our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with compelling, thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a new behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, translated from the Middle English by Nevill Coghill
I’m rereading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in an enjoyable verse translation by Nevill Coghill. Chaucer is quite the rhymester, despite his courtly self-deprecation: “Who would make rhymes in English fit to vie / With martyrdom like that? Indeed, not I.” I’m also struck with how robust the physical book is: a 1963 Penguin paperback, its paper still supple and its binding firm, in contrast to volumes Penguin published 20 years later, which now crumble when I open them.
Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror
Fascinating and terrifying, Masco’s book examines the afterlife of the bomb (think civil defense and underground shelters). Nuclear history lives on today in efforts to manage the American population through fear of terror and in government’s lack of meaningful action on climate change. Moving between analyses of nuclear propaganda, scientific debates, and government policy, he argues that the nuclear security state created the images of planetary danger that might enable such action but, at the same time, defined the threat as solely military, disabling a broader vision of global peril.
Nicolas Bouvier, The Scorpion-Fish, translated from the French by Robyn Marsack
The Scorpion-Fish is a fictionalized account of the seven months in 1955 the Swiss writer and typically intrepid traveler Nicolas Bouvier spent “stuck” on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), virtually if temporarily defeated by the climate. Compared with the narrator-protagonist of The Way of the World, Bouvier’s other famous book, The Scorpion-Fish’s “Ba-o-u-vi-e-rr Sahib” is less reliable, more self-absorbed, and a bit less sympathetic, but also more intriguing as a character. And ultimately the images are so stunning, so often counter-intuitive, as to be irresistible—as for example, this favorite, of an imaginary theater troupe’s hypothetical sunken ship: “All that finery consigned to salt, released in silvered clusters to float past the flabbergasted fish, setting them to dream of a shapely foot, sharpened daggers, noble histrionics.”
Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory
Elden pulls off a surprising genealogy of a seemingly clear concept—territory—that brings to light historically and culturally contingent relationships between place and power. Though we’ve had a multitude of explorations of space and place—one immediately thinks of Lefebvre’s The Production of Space or de Certau’s “Spatial Stories,” or perhaps Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces”—Elden’s close reading of classic texts has surfaced a slippery political technology. The historical and literary sweep here is vast, from the Greek demos and polis, to the alleged “Donation of Constantine,” to King Lear’s divvying of land among his three daughters. Along the way, we get nuanced explorations of exactly how a “people” or a “place” or a “boundary” can be constituted in widely varying ways. Elden, for example, points out that the Roman Empire offered little development of the map, but rather its documents and practices suggest a mode of thinking in terms of the line, or the road connecting one node to another, that enabled the generation of a fluid and effective frontier system.
Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr
This short, sharp novel, Iyer’s fourth, concerns a group of Cambridge undergrads and their mercurial professor, who bears a strong resemblance (in temperament, if not in build) to his namesake. At once quick and difficult, Iyer’s great wit and minimalist tendencies are a nice balance to some demanding philosophy.
Ann Morning, The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference
Ann Morning’s fine book argues that race concepts in the US have been heavily shaped by science. Nothing controversial there. Her argument that race is a social construction is widely known in academia. But Morning also claims that scientists—including social scientists—are not nearly as unanimous in thinking of race as a social construct as we are accustomed to think and that various forms of essentialist (as opposed to constructionist) ideas of race—from biological essentialism to cultural essentialism—remain popular among scientists of many stripes. That idea is much more controversial and, frankly, inspires my skepticism. Will her evidence convince me? I don’t yet know, but I look forward to finding out, not least because her pellucid prose sparkles with energy and intelligence on nearly every page.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
In accordance with wintertime ennui, I’ve been rereading one of my absolute favorite “downers.” Pessoa’s posthumous piecemeal prose is self-deprecating, incisive, and delightfully depressing. Pessoa was a fascinating writer: throughout the course of his life, he created over 80 heteronyms: other selves, intellectually significant alter-egos, some with fleshed-out life histories and very distinct writing styles. In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes under the name of Bernardo Soares, a thinly veiled version of himself (one of his “semi-heteronyms”), a pessimistic Lisbon bookkeeper who keeps to himself and waxes existentially (Soares calls the book a “factless autobiography”). Pessoa wrote a great deal of poetry, and these prose fragments, found in a trunk after his death, read like poems, each illuminating the droll and lifeless world through which he meanders with gorgeous and affecting language.
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
I’m much more of an avid fiction reader, but this was the book for the book club I’m a part of. I quickly became wrapped up in it. It was fascinating initially because of how interconnected class was to college experiences, but then they delved into how it would also affect your career or grad school choices after graduation, which was particularly relevant given that I’m due to graduate in five months.
Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
I’ve long been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s works and when I heard the BBC was making a radio adaptation of the book, I knew that I would have to read it. It’s delightfully clever so far—my personal favorites are the Four Horsemen—and it’s definitely inspired me to look more into the works of Terry Prachett.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated from the German by John E. Woods
I’m working my way through Mann’s masterpiece and the book’s reputation is well-warranted. Mann has an extraordinary gift for description and the philosophical digressions are never shallow. I’ve had the good fortune of reading the book with some background in German intellectual history and it’s only enriched the experience. Kant, Nietzsche, and Goethe lurk on every page.
Colin Whitehead, The Intuitionist
I am currently making my way through Colin Whitehead’s 1999 novel The Intuitionist. In an unnamed but recognizable metropolitan world obsessed with technologies of vertical transport, the novel’s main character, Lila Mae Watson, is the second black and the first female elevator inspector to be admitted to the inspector’s guild. She herself is trained as an intuitionist, and she finds herself in the middle of a political and philosophical battle between the up and coming intuitionists and the entrenched and dominant empiricists. It is a carefully structured book, and she is both a surprising and a strong character. I am reading it in pieces before bed.