All posts filed under: Books

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Remembering John Ball, the Writer Who Gave Us Virgil Tibbs

Sidney Poitier, who retired from acting 20 years ago, turned in many unforgettable screen performances over a career that spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. But his best known is almost certainly his portrayal of police officer Virgil Tibbs, the protagonist of Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, one of the first films to impress the combined issues of policing and racism on popular culture. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best movie lines of all time places Poitier’s “They call me Mister Tibbs!” at number 16 (right between “E.T., phone home.” and “Rosebud”). As portrayed in the film, Tibbs is a Philadelphia detective who happens to be passing through a small Mississippi town when a murdered body is discovered by the police. A racist local cop goes to the station to see if anyone might be trying to hastily catch a train out of town. There he finds Tibbs who, after visiting his mother in …

Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property—A Review

A review of On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Biblioasis, 96 pages (May 25th, 2021) The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, “This is mine,” and came across people simple enough to believe him. How many crimes, wars, murders and how much misery and horror the human race might have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch, and cried out to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this charlatan. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth itself belongs to no one!” Even if most sober-minded readers might dismiss Rousseau’s counter-factual history as a symptom of a dangerous utopianism, his critique of private property has fired the imaginations of radical thinkers and activists since before the French Revolution. While Rousseau himself did not believe we could return to a propertyless state as the “solution” to modernity’s problems, his view of history as a “fall” from …

Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist

History is not destiny. ~Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture Somewhere out of the mysterious interplay between nature and nurture, internal and external factors, cultures and structures, and bottom-up and top-down forces there emerge the individual and group outcomes that we care about and which ultimately make the difference between human flourishing and its absence. What distinguishes various political ideologies, in effect, is how the line of causation is drawn, or, more specifically, from which direction. What gets left unexamined in the rush for compelling narratives and ideological certainty, however, is the territory between different causes and how they combine to shape reality. Few have gone further to map that territory than the American economist, political philosopher, and public intellectual Thomas Sowell. At 90 years of age, Sowell remains among the most prolific, influential, and penetrating minds of the past century. He understands the world in terms of trade-offs, incentives, constraints, systemic processes, feedback mechanisms, and human capital, an understanding developed by scrutinizing available data, considering human experience, and applying robust common sense. Sowell has written …

Mailer and the Second Wavers

The March 1971 issue of Harper’s was one of the most famous—and notorious—that the magazine had published in its then-121-year history. Even now, 50 years later, it is still just as famous and just as notorious. The issue consisted almost entirely of a cover-story essay by Norman Mailer (then aged 48) entitled “The Prisoner of Sex,” that ran into tens of thousands of words and declared war on the movement then known as “women’s liberation.” Within two months, the essay appeared in slightly altered form as a book, also entitled The Prisoner of Sex, and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Mailer was already infamous in feminist circles for such remarks during media interviews as “All women should be kept in cages” and “[T]he prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best possible mate for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species.” (He maintained that both statements were testimony to women’s powers.) At the time “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared, Mailer had …

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing

On March 21st, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta arrived in Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert rally for Sports Illustrated. Asked to write a 500-word summary of the race to accompany a photograph, Thompson annoyed his editors when he turned in thousands of words about his escapades in the city of sin, with barely a mention of the race itself. This bizarre piece of writing ultimately became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one of the most important but misunderstood novels of the 20th century. In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson was at the peak of his literary powers but not yet a household name. His first book, Hell’s Angels, had been published to widespread acclaim just five years earlier, and in 1970, he had stumbled upon a great literary breakthrough with an essay entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a piece of writing so unique that it created a new literary genre that came to be known as “Gonzo journalism.” As the star writer for Rolling Stone, Thompson …

Sex, Drugs, and Antiquity

A review of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku. St Martin’s Press, 480 pages. (September 2020) A growing appreciation of plant medicines over the past few decades has allowed the media to shine a favorable spotlight on the previously proscribed use of ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other lesser-known plant allies in the “Age of Entheogens.” In the Entheogenic (“manifesting god within”) Era, for the first time since Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 50 years ago, not only are entire universities and medical schools like Johns Hopkins conducting studies on these plants, but advocates are coming out of the most unlikely corners of the sober professional class to advocate for their proper use. One such professional is Brian Muraresku, a Jesuit-educated classics scholar, DC lawyer, and graduate of Brown University and Georgetown Law. He remains a “psychedelic virgin” but has nonetheless penned what will likely become a classic study of the ancient use of drugged beer and wine in the Near East and Europe, and the …

The Enduring Relevance of Czesław Miłosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’

Anyone watching the shenanigans at the New York Times of late could be forgiven for thinking it was a modern-dress staging of The Crucible or a Soviet purge. The US’s central “newspaper of record” (founded 1851) has recently, it seems, surrendered all editorial balance and autonomy. Bari Weiss, the op-ed staff editor who quit her job there last August, said in a resignation letter that the paper’s editorial staff were effectively in power no longer: “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” She spoke too of “constant bullying” by colleagues, a “civil war … between the (mostly young) wokes” and “the (mostly 40+) liberals” and a culture of “safetyism” now prevalent in the newspaper. “The right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe,” she wrote, “trumps what were previous considered core liberal values, like free speech.” The defenestration of Donald McNeil, a veteran science reporter who’d been with the paper since 1976 and has been nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage of the pandemic, is a case in point. And McNeil’s departure wasn’t the first …

We Can Revisit (And Even Replace) the Classic Books We Teach Children—Without Cancelling Them

Earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they included several drawings with racial stereotypes. As the press release put it, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” The New York Times published opposing responses. Columnist Charles M. Blow celebrated the news, linking the books to the racist stereotypes in Tarzan and Our Gang that had damaged his self-esteem growing up. He argued that these images should be weeded out because they lead children to internalize a sense of inferiority. His conservative counterpart Ross Douthat, on the other hand, described the decision as evidence that companies are abandoning free-speech principles in order to protect their image from progressive attacks. This self-censorship has frightening implications as they have unfettered control over major cultural franchises and landmarks. As one might imagine, Fox News was less restrained. Tucker …

Before ‘Groundhog Day’: The Time-Loop Novel that Started It All

On March 4th, the Ringer, a website that covers pop culture, featured an article entitled “We’re in a Time Loop of Time-Loop Movies.” Similar articles have appeared in many other pop-culture venues of late. Suddenly, time-loop stories seem to be everywhere. This month Hulu began streaming director Joe Carnahan’s new sci-fi action film Boss Level, the tale of a soldier in the near future who wakes up every morning only to relive the day of his death. Carnahan has described the film as “Groundhog Day as an action movie.” A few weeks before the release of Boss Level, Amazon Prime released director Ian Samuels’s film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which could be described as Groundhog Day as a teenage romance. Last July, Hulu released director Max Barbakow’s film Palm Springs, a time-loop story starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons. The film is both a romance and an action film. It’s no surprise that time-loop stories seem suddenly relevant to many pop-culture consumers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the various quarantines …