September to November Reading

I’ve been a bit slow to write about my reading for the three month period ending in November (Reading Plan: September through November 2023); I’m finally getting to that now. It was a good reading time for me, one that awakened old interests and also opened up some areas new to me. Here’s the list, with a few comments about each of them.

First, the set of books I laid out in the list at the beginning of this period:

  • Fiction. My local independent bookstore has a subscription program that selects a new book for subscribers each month. The chosen books are new releases, and there’s the added “benefit” of their being signed by the author. I decided to try it out, largely because I don’t know much about contemporary fiction. I received three of these books through that program. The outlier is McCarthy’s book. I read Stella Maris because it is closely related to McCarthy’s The Passenger, which I read last summer.
    • Adrienne Brodeur, Little Monsters. An interesting account of a family learning to deal with unsettling changes. The mother died when the two children were young. The father is dealing with his approaching the end of a long career as a marine biologist. He’d like very much to have one final achievement to prove to others (especially his younger colleagues, who see him as an aging dinosaur who needs to move on). The son is seeking to make his mark financially in a way that will bring him out from under the shadow of his father (and father-in-law). And the daughter is an emerging artist seeking to find herself and her way in the world. And then there’s a new family member who emerges, seemingly out of nowhere.
    • Claire Fuller, The Memory of Animals. A pandemic (what else) unsettles the world. The story focuses on a small group of people who had volunteered for a vaccine trial before things really fell apart. They find themselves isolated – even abandoned – in the hospital clinic, wondering about the world outside and struggling to find community among themselves.
    • Cormac McCarthy, Stella Maris. The son and daughter of a prominent physicist eventually ostracized from the field, each of them also very, very bright. The Passenger focused on the life of the son, with the daughter dancing around the edges. Stella Maris focuses on the daughter. I found both of these novels to be very intriguing, though I think they’re not McCarthy’s best.
    • Ann Patchett, Tom Lake. A fascinating account of a woman thinking about the life she might have led as a famous actress from the perspective of her satisfied life working a family cherry orchard in rural Michigan. Much of the story is told through the mother’s account of her former life in stories she tells to her three daughters. Watch out for the surprise ending.
  • Philosophy.
    • Charles Hartshorne, Creativity in American Philosophy. My own teacher said that Hartshorne would always be the philosopher to him. This discussion of American philosophy is as much an account of Hartshorne’s own philosophical position as a description of the positions of the American philosophers he discusses. But I find it to be enlightening on both counts – and I came out of it with a better understanding of Whitehead.
    • Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science. Another account of the Vienna Circle. I found it to be a bit overly dramatic. I think the best thing I can say about it is that reading it led me to consider revisiting Toulmin and Janik’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna.
    • Karen Stohr, Choosing Freedom. I found this (especially the first two parts) to be a very interesting introduction to Kant’s ethical theory and to ethics more generally, and I’d definitely consider using it if I were to teach an introductory ethics course. More relevant, perhaps, is that it inspired me to return to Kant himself.
    • Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals. An account of the intellectual lives of four women – Mary Midgley (née Scrutton), Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet), who entered Oxford University just after the beginning of World War II to study philosophy. They entered just as many of the men at the forefront of philosophy were leaving to join the war effort, and they struggled to maintain a place for ethics and metaphysics in the analytic/positivist philosophies those men had developed. I knew something about Anscombe because of her work on Wittgenstein, but I knew little more than the names of the others. I think this book was well worth reading.
    • Wolfram Eilenberger, The Visionaries. A discussion of the lives and work of Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Simone Weil. I picked this book up largely because of my interest in Arendt and Weil (and despite my lack of interest in Rand). While I appreciated the discussion of Arendt, I was particularly interested in the dynamics of the relationship between Weil and Beauvoir. On the whole, though, (like Exact Thinking in Demented Times) the book had more of a docu-drama approach to the subject than I would have liked.
    • Joke J. Hermsen, A Good and Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemborg. Again, my interest in one thinker (Arendt) awakened an interest in and appreciation for another thinker (Luxemborg). Hermsen does a good job of introducing the work of the lives and thoughts of these two women. I think there’s much here that can help us (me) understand more deeply the social and cultural world that seems to be falling apart around me.
    • Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties. The title is pretty clear. This short book develops a point that seems obvious to me – if political parties serve to consolidate many interests into the dogmatic interests of a party, then a politician will be forced to choose between the party and the nation. Weil insists that we’d be better off without them.
    • Robert Zaretsdky, The Submersive Simone Weil. I found this to be a very helpful introduction to Weil’s life and thought, organized around the themes of affliction, attention, resistance, roots, and the Good.
    • Richard Sennett, The Craftsman. This book has been on my list for a while, and I’m happy finally to have read it. It’s similar in some ways to Matthew Crawford’s work. Sennett argues (contra Arendt’s distinction between labor and work) that the fruits of labor go beyond satisfying the sustenance needs of the human animal, and that there’s value in the labor itself in addition to labor’s fruits.
  • Essays/Culture
    • Elaine Castillo, How to read now. Castillo’s working definition of “reading” goes beyond the reading of the printed word. She’s interested in that, but she’s also interested in how we read the world: how our position in the world shapes what we see in texts and the world itself. She describes this more succinctly than I could in these two quotations: “When I describe the way my reading life is inextricable from the way I was raised – built, really, to be a person in the world – and how my reading life now is committed not just to reading books, but to the world that those books helped me to bear witness to, what I’m really saying is that my reading life was also an inheritance; one that came in the form of an ongoing act of love” (p. 25f). “We know that the stories we inherit and erase, no different from the ones we produce or ignore, are never neutral or ahistorical, and the force they bring with them is one that influence, consciously or subconsciously, how we read our world, and consequently, how we write it”(p. 294).
    • John McPhee, Draft No. 4. I discovered McPhee earlier this year, and I find his work both intriguing and helpful. This discussion of elements of the writing process is very, very good.
    • Annie Dillard, The Writing Life. It’s been decades since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; perhaps I should pick it up again. This small book is aptly titled – it’s a short account of the life that a writer leads, offering some inspiration to the reader to step to the other side and write something.
  • Memoir / Letters
    • Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader. Gottlieb’s long career as a reader and editor leaves him with many anecdotes about writers and work with writers. And about himself. I found the anecdotes fascinating, especially when they concerned his work with writers whose work I’m reading these days. I wouldn’t call this book intellectually engaging; more of a collection of high-brow gossip. But definitely fascinating.
    • May Sarton, The House by the Sea. I hope to write more someday about just how May Sarton’s work came into my reading life. For the moment, I’ll say that her approach to journaling is both inspiring and also a bit intimidating. Would that I could write about quotidian existence as well as she does.
    • May Sarton, Dear Juliette. Sarton’s relationship with Juliette Huxley is captured in this collection of letters. There are a few of Huxley’s letters to Sarton as well, though not the ones that Huxley asked Sarton to burn at a particularly fraught time in their relationship.
    • Juliette Huxley, Leaves of the Tulip Tree. I found this to be an engaging memoir, though (like Sarton) I’m more than a little disappointed that Huxley says nothing about her relationship with Sarton in these pages. But it’s good to know about the summer that Juliette and Julien Huxley, Aldous and Maria Huxley, and D.H. and Frieda Lawrence spent together in the Alps. While there, Maria Huxley typed Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Funny, I don’t see any acknowledgment of that work in my copy of the book.
  • Science
    • Caitlin O’Connell, Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals can Teach Us about Connection, Community, and Ourselves. An interesting, light account of the behavior of non-human animals that shows that we humans are not quite as special as we make ourselves out to be. She discusses a variety of ritual behaviors found in nonhuman animals: greeting rituals, gifting rituals, grieving rituals, and others.

And some additional books that I managed to read, some of them seemingly random discoveries on bookshop shelves and others inspired by reading a book in the list above or by happenstance.

  • Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions. What can one say about Solnit? She has not only a wide range of interests but also the ability to write engagingly about all of them. Like many women who have chosen to be childless, she’s weary of responding to the question why she doesn’t have children.
  • Vital Little Plans (Jane Jacobs). Another of my recent discoveries that I find a bit embarrassing (not the discovery itself, but that I’m discovering it this late) is that Jane Jacobs wrote many things in addition to The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This collection of essays draws from several phases of her life, and offers a broad account of her frustrations with and hopes for our cultural lives – and not just lives in cities.
  • Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics. This is a readable (compared to other Kant texts) set of lectures Kant gave. Though I’ve known about this publication for years, I was inspired to read it now by Karen Stohr (see above).
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Again, see my comments about Stohr’s book. For years I’ve had the notion that I should re-read (or, in some cases, read) Kant’s major works. I’ve finally set that as an actual task, rather than a wish. I started with the ethical works, both because I’ve read them (and even taught them) and also because it seemed a good move after reading Stohr’s book.
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason. Another re-read, which is not to say it was simply a review. I’m reminded of things that I know but didn’t know that I know, and I’m also seeing things I didn’t see before.
  • Phillip Lapote, A Year and a Day. Lapote was invited to write a weekly blog post for a year. This is a collection of those posts. It’s classic Lapote, and it’s good to see him make his way into this (for him) new environment.
  • Jeremy Bernstein, Einstein. As I prepared comments to give at the event honoring Joe Stamey, I read through a folder of essays and letters that he sent me over the years. Among those papers was a list of a dozen (or so) books. When I saw it, I remembered asking Joe late one spring to recommend some books that I might read over the summer. I’m quite sure (but not certain) that this is that list. I’m both sure and certain that I’ve not read any of them. So, both to honor Joe and to broaden my reading, I’ve set myself the task of working through the list. This is the first. I found it a fascinating account of Einstein’s life and thought and also of the development of physics and mathematics during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was particularly interesting to read this during the time of Oppenheimer (the film).
  • Allen Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought. See above, re my Kant project. Wood is one of several Kant scholars whom I’ve chosen to support my reading of Kant. This is a particularly good, in-depth introduction to Kant’s ethics.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. I read this years ago. I’m not sure, but I think I was inspired to pick it up again when I learned that it’s the favorite book of a young politician whose views of the world are decidedly different from mine. I’m not altogether sure what he sees in it. I find it to be a good reminder of the ephemeral character of life and how I might live in response to that.
  • Jacqueline Rose, The Plague: Living Death in our Time. I picked this up because Weil is a particular focus, but I found the discussion of Camus, Freud, and Weil to be informative. I think we’ll be struggling to understand the impact of covid on our culture for a long time (assuming, that is, we survive for a long time!). Rose’s reflections are both interesting and helpful.
  • Vivian Gornick, ed, The Best American Essays 2023. This is an interesting collection of short pieces. Some tidbits: My excuse for enjoying Edward Hoagland’s essay “On Aging” is that, well, I’m aging. “Old age is a slippery slope, but if you enjoyed sledding as a kid and improvising ever since, it shouldn’t be degrading” (p. 123). And consider Sigrid Nunez’s account of Flannery O’Connor’s response to the question “why do you write?” “Because I’m good at it.” Eric Borsuk’s account of surviving prison is very moving; the advice he received early on from a fellow inmate works as well outside of prison as it does inside: “He said if I could find this thing – this sense of purpose – it would make all the difference in my life. Without it, he said, my sentence would feel like an endless misery. ‘Do the time,’ he said, ‘don’t let the time do you’” (p. 26).

And, finally, a note to myself: I would do well to write a brief note about a book when I finish it, rather than wait until the end of the period to write them all at once: stop with the procrastinating, already!