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
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, translated from the German by Angela Davies
The death of Wolfgang Schivelbusch in March at the age of 81 sent me back to his work—in particular, Disenchanted Night—to recover the wonder that it provided when I was first exposed to it in graduate school. To say that Schivelbusch was a cultural historian scarcely covers it; he was a historian of technology, of material culture more broadly, and also of our very sensorium—one for whom, as for Marx, the making of the five senses was a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present. This made him also a kind of mythopoeic writer, describing in quasi-literary ways the shock of the senses adjusting to new technological facts, such as, most famously, the speed of the railway journey or, as here, the illumination of night by gas and then electricity. Yet alongside shock, perhaps even dearer to him, he always evoked peculiar mythic continuities as well, as for instance how gazing into the gas lamp kept the individual tethered to a memory of the immemorial communal fire and the rituals that had developed around it. Schivelbusch belonged to no academic institution, and was himself a survival of some almost-mythic mode of intellectual life; as such he could range as freely across different historical registers as he liked. It also meant his questions could be as large as possible. Such as: what in our consciousness changed when night itself went into permanent retreat?
Founding Editor & Film Section Editor
Gerald Durrell, Beasts in My Belfry
Imagine Jane Austen’s comic powers of observation trained on a provincial British zoo in 1945 and you have some idea of the pleasures of Gerald Durrell’s Beasts in My Belfry, first published in 1973. Durrell is now best known for charming tales of life with, to paraphrase his most famous title, his family and other animals. Beasts in My Belfry recounts what happens when he leaves home in his late teens to take up work at Whipsnade, the United Kingdom’s largest zoo.
As Gerald tends the zoo’s various species, from “A Lusk of Lions” to “A Gallivant of Gnus,” he sketches their foibles and pays tribute to their indomitable creaturely spirits. The humans are flat secondary characters, collections of habits, tics, and catchphrases, from the zoo superintendent who likes his curries ferociously hot and is always roaring, booming, and lumbering, to the keeper who takes umbrage at young Gerry’s avid notetaking: “Bloody Sherlock Holmes … always writing frigging things down.”
It’s the animals who sparkle, exhibiting the wit, cunning, and emotional complexity of well-rounded protagonists. There’s the deer who, amid a field of chickens “looked as though he were just giving them a lecture on the beauties of travel”; the polar bear who, unlike her shyer mate, “liked nothing better than a good audience” for her displays of swimming “artistry”; and the giraffe with “melting eyes” who dotes on the goat who shares his stall and “could really … only be described by one word—he looked cultured.”
Systems and Futures Section Editor
Oxana Timofeeva, Solar Politics
Marshal Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity
I have been thinking about the air, spirit, sun. How they might fold better into the ways in which we live. So much has been jettisoned for practicality’s sake. So much streamlined, supply-chained, stripped down to the bones for efficiency’s sake. I reached out and found two books to think with. The first: Solar Politics by Oxana Timofeeva, a Russian philosopher who, inspired by Bataille (as many of us are) does not rest with him or dally there. Instead she reaches backward into the history of the sun in western philosophy to ask of it (and of us) what place does the sun have in how we dream a prefect world? Or just, how we might contrive one better lived than this, with the sun as our guide? The second book is The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity by Marshal Sahlins, a man with whom I played basketball, but whose work I have never read. This seemed a good chance to begin to think with his last effort, which treats the history and practices of living beyond the material; vitality beyond the inanimate. But, here, a ‘beyond’ is not an ‘otherwhere’ but rather a mode of folding, pleating, kneading, interweaving an ineffable breath into the substance of this life. The one we know, but do not know how to alter, just yet.
Print/Screen Section Editor
Ben Davies, Christina Lupton, and Johanne Gormsen Schmidt,
Reading Novels During the Covid-19 Pandemic
The divergence among national COVID responses made reading one of the many subjects of a natural experiment. Tina Lupton, Ben Davies, and Johane Gormsen Schmidt swiftly combined surveys with ethnographic interviewing to compare the experience of novel-reading in Denmark’s and the UK’s starkly different lockdowns. The resulting collective monograph, Reading novels during the Covid-19 Pandemic, takes its cue from locked-down readers’ return to books they already owned but had not necessarily read, replacing our usual focus on the novelty embedded in one-time events such as publication and purchase by practices whose relation to time is more layered than a single date can convey. In place of the rereading that usually interests literary theorists, Davies, Lupton and Schmidt make visible a slipperier kind of repetition. Instead of repeating an earlier reading, the experience that they describe fulfills the earlier intentions to read or predictions of reading that were already expressed positively by a purchase or negatively by not discarding.
Systems and Futures Section Editor
Christopher Priest, An American Story
I approached Christopher Priest’s recent An American Story with some trepidations. I’ve experienced highs and lows with his novels, and the prospect of a conspiracy theory-adjacent foray into the events of 9/11 from a British perspective was not immediately compelling. Priest is often driven by lapses in memory and disruptions in reality—and 9/11 is now (maybe) distant enough to provide a Baudrillardian prism for working through how media produces memories. Frequent readers of Priest’s work might be fatigued by some recurrent motifs (lost lovers, twins, islands), but in An American Story they largely serve as background for a story about one man’s paranoia—and their veracity (or lack thereof) add up in compelling ways. Like the best of his work, the novel implicates the reader in the narrative, making 9/11 the right kind of event to explore how our memories are made.