TAC Bookshelf for the Week of April 23
Daniel Larison, senior editor:
- Cornwall: A History by Philip Payton. The latest revised edition of Payton’s history of Cornwall tells a fascinating story of a unique part of Britain that retained a distinct identity despite being politically united to the English crown centuries before any of the other Celtic nations of the island. Throughout the many convulsions of English history, Cornwall retained a degree of political autonomy and cultural distinctiveness for centuries after its formal independence ended. Though Cornish is spoken by a relative few now, the language has its own literary tradition and has begun to enjoy a modest modern revival. Payton draws together political narrative and reflections on changing cultural identity to show how Anglia and Cornubia shaped and affected one another, and he sets the experience of modern Cornwall in the context of Europe’s re-emerging regional identities in the decades since the end of WWII.
- The Song the Owl God Sang: The collected Ainu legends of Chiri Yukie. Translated by Benjamin Peterson. This slim volume is a translation of the first written record of Ainu oral tradition written by a native Ainu author from the island of Hokkaido. Originally composed in 1922 in Ainu and Japanese, Chiri Yukie’s retelling of yukar, chanted fables that tell of the relationship between the worlds of men and gods, sparked broader interest in Ainu language and culture. The owl god, Chikap Kamui, is the Ainu god of the land and wealth, and two of the stories are told from his perspective, while the other eleven are tales told by other gods and heroes. The book is a quick read, but offers an interesting window into Ainu culture and spirituality.
Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I just finished Wendell Berry’s The Art of Loading Brush, published last October. The book’s three opening essays are perhaps the strongest contributions to the volume, but I loved his concluding story, “The Art of Loading Brush.” There’s a sense, in this book, that Berry is striving to pass down the immense wisdom and knowledge he’s gleaned to the next generation of Americans, and this final story emphasizes that beautifully. “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age” addresses (sometimes directly, more often indirectly) the problems which laid the foundation for Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win in 2016. And “Leaving the Future Behind,” while focused on climate change and promoting a proper sustainability, is also a rich philosophical and spiritual examination of the worries of the modern era. I wrote a little bit about the essay, and Berry’s thoughtful critiques of prediction, for Intercollegiate Review. I’d strongly encourage Berry fans (and others, of course) to pick up the book.
I’m currently working my way through Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, and can already understand why it’s dominated my news and Twitter feeds for the past few months. Deneen’s rich insights into our political moment are drawn from an immense knowledge of the western political canon, and I feel this book will continue to help define and elucidate the problems we’re currently grappling with as a society.
Some other (shorter) recommendations: this long New York Timesfeature on soil health and climate change, Chuck Marohn’s recent Strong Towns podcast on incrementalism, and this delightful article from the Princeton Alumni Weekly about a Parisian bread connoisseur.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: I recently had occasion to reread Russell Kirk’s now classic Old House of Fear and wasn’t disappointed. Originally published in 1961, the spooky tale of diabolical presence in a gloomy Scottish setting is often cited for being the catalyst of a Gothic revival in American horror fiction. While I don’t think that’s quite accurate, the novel is a distinguished example of fiction which transcends the confines of its genre by virtue of fidelity to form. Classic examples of horror fiction are always more than simply spine-tingling tales. The best horror uses the rules of the horror tradition to elevate the total effect of the work in to something more than the sum of its parts. And who understands the power of tradition better than Kirk?
On what might appear at first glance the exact opposite end of every conceivable spectrum from Kirk is the work of the Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, whose translated works I’ve slowly been making my way through. Stylistically they couldn’t be more different. Han comes off as a somewhat esoteric thinker in the tradition of Heidegger but with a relatively jargon-free prose that brings the aphoristic writing of Nietzsche to mind. But I think both Kirk and Han share many of the same concerns about modern society generally: the replacement of thought with calculation, the intrusiveness of technology, the dehumanizing effects of pornography, and the decay of the contemplative life in lieu of mindless consumption. All of Han’s translated works are slim chapbooks, and a couple good places to start are with The Transparency Society (which focuses on the ramifications of the elimination of privacy in the modern world) and The Agony of Eros (a wonderful exegesis on contemporary dating and sex).