A Word from the Collective Superego

In beginning: what we believe matters. It has consequences for how we behave and what we prioritize. That is not in question.

But there's this urban legend that someone is dirt if they don't have the right ideas. As if no one has ever changed their mind in the history of the world. As if you've never been wrong in your life.

I'm guilty of this kind of thinking too. But I try, when I'm being my better self, to disarm contempt and speak less from hate of the idea incarnate and more for love of the person or, failing that, the truth.

If you've treated everyone well and lived uprightly, I don't think history will care what your private convictions are. At least some of them were good enough that you've done your part to ensure that the world was a better place.

If you've been a crappy person but passionately defended beauty, truth, compassion, and justice, then I appreciate your attempts to spread those ideas, but you've got this all mixed up.

And I get it: half of our lives happen in a world made out of words - social media, text messaging, email - or abstract realities that we can't touch much less change - like the tv shows and movies that everyone is always telling me I should watch. So we get this notion that it's the abstract things that really matter.

"Please sir, can I see your ideology?" Not: "What's the last thing you did for someone that was reasonably selfless?"

People are often wrong. They believe things we can't sympathize with. They vote in ways we don't understand. But we're also complicated and redeemable. Some of us suck, but it isn't always the ones you'd expect. All of us suck some of the time, and that's why we have to have grace and humility: for ourselves and for each other.

I'm pretty sick of divisiveness and tragedies compounded by contempt, mischaracterization, and misunderstanding. It's possible to respect each other, even if we don't share the same beliefs. Maybe it's time we put our energies toward healing the rifts, rather than making them wider.


Books of 2017

2017 was an excellent year, in terms of reading material. Themes included: solid book club selections, an ongoing interest in the ethical and psychological aspects of a culture in war as manifested in World War II, reading everything Sebald ever wrote, and as many of the books on this list of works dealing with race and ethnicity in America as I could access. With regard to fiction, my primary interest was in reading books by authors of other cultures, especially African and Asian, although I obviously did not confine myself solely to that - and happily so, as Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior was perhaps one of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

The book that totally stumped me (and toward which I hold a small grudge), was Naguib Mahfouz's The Mirage. I reiterate that if anyone can explain to me who the protagonist sees at the very end, I will be very grateful to you, because I have no idea and couldn't be bothered to figure it out. On the other hand, I was utterly delighted by the magical absurdity of The Master and Margarita, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed the 19th century Russians and might appreciate their somewhat more modern counterpart. The Underground Railroad was a subtler variation on the style of The Master and Margarita, using fantastical elements to bring into focus a much more serious and pervasive reality (and was so good that I got a copy for one of my sisters for Christmas).

Just Mercy was deep and heavy, but not without hope or a willingness to challenge stereotypes: perhaps the best kind of medicine for these divided days. Meanwhile, The Color of Law and White Rage were a burning challenge to ideas of helplessness and refusal to take responsibility for the systematic oppression of specific groups of people. On the subject of divided days and timely reading, American Nations was an eye-opening explanation of one way of understanding political and social divides through the cultural heritages of different U.S. regions (and might be a good place to start before reading Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, which fell a little flat for me, but which I appreciated nonetheless, especially for its portrayal of the individual nuances that arise at the intersection of the personal and political, but also for some of its challenges to liberal/coastal ways of characterizing that world).

Book that made me cry the hardest: The Book Thieves. I've read so many books at this point surrounding World War II, though not a great many about the Holocaust. As a lover of books, I have always felt as though my collection were somehow a manifestation of my interests, goals, and desires taken shape in the world. Add to that the historically unique and incomparably precious nature of the books and collections involved, and I found this account devastating. As though it were not enough to destroy the physical bodies of the Jews (and political dissidents, but primarily here Jewish communities), but further, the conditioned, specific, cherished means of communicating their culture to another generation, if it might survive, were dismantled, dispersed, looted, disrespected, and in some cases, destroyed. If you wish to systematically obliterate not persons, but a people, this is the means by which you would do it. It feels heartless to say that in the face of the statistics on millions of lives struck down, I have little emotional response, and yet the loss of so many books touched the note of grief; but it somehow brought the enormity of the Holocaust home to me in a way that those numbers couldn't. (Although I will say that some of the later parts of Austerlitz were similarly affecting.)

Finally, the poetic essays of Mary Oliver, the stripped down, yet astonishing beauty of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and, my forever favorite, the "fiction" of W.G. Sebald struck some lovely notes in the midst of an often (mentally or literally) heavy reading load (e.g. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I've already gone into in other posts and therefore will not revisit here).

In the past, I think I've tended just to post the list without any comments, but beyond simple self-aggrandizement, I would love for this to open up conversations with other people about books they may be interested in reading or what they've thought of some of the items on the list, or to inspire someone to read something new. So please, consider this an invitation to ask or comment!

2017 (in order of completion):

Luzerne County: History of the People and Culture - Dr. Paul J. Zbick
Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept - Slavoj Zizek
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Eichmann and the Holocaust - Hannah Arendt
A Brief History of the Crimean War - Alexis Toubetzkoy
One Summer: America, 1927 - Bill Bryson
On Violence - Hannah Arendt
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald
A Book of Common Prayer - Joan Didion
Journeys of a German in England in 1782 - C.P. Moritz
The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
Upstream - Mary Oliver
The Old Ways - Robert MacFarlane
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium - Mark Kurlansky
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Charles Marsh
The Purity of Vengeance - Jussi Adler-Olsen
The Utopia of Rules - David Graeber
The Absent One - Jussi Adler-Olsen
Strangers in Their Own Land - Arlie Russell Hochschild
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell
Small Wonders - Barbara Kingsolver
Nine Parts of Desire - Geraldine Brooks
The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver
The Greater Trumps - Charles Williams
African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives - Ed. Lee M. Brown
The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
Death of a King - Tavis Smiley
Utopia for Realists - Rutger Bregman
Hero of the Empire - Candice Millard
Fire Shut Up in My Bones - Charles M. Blow
Germans Into Nazis - Peter Fritsche
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America - Colin Woodard
Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
Ways of Dying - Zakes Mda
Flight Behavior - Barbara Kingsolver
The Return of Don Quixote - G. K. Chesterton
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge - Erica Armstrong Dunbar
The Two Cultures - C.P. Snow
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Science & Government - C.P. Snow
They Can't Kill Us All - Wesley Lowery
The Mirage - Naguib Mahfouz
On the Road to Babadag - Andrzej Stasiuk
Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
The Book Thieves - Anders Rydell
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich - Norman Ohler
The Turn of the Screen and Other Stories - Henry James
The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
White Rage - Carol Anderson
The Trouble with Reality - Brooke Gladstone
Tears We Cannot Stop - Michael Eric Dyson
Hannah Arendt: An Introduction - John McGowan
The Snow Leopard - Peter Mathiessen
The Door - Magda Szabo
A Paradise Built in Hell - Rebecca Solnit
The Color of Law - Richard Rothstein
A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines
Castle in the Air - Diana Wynne Jones
The Emigrants - W.G. Sebald