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Reading Dangerously

Does reading change you?
Capitol Hill Books

Well, ye ole year of reading “dangerously” is here again. In The Guardian, Megan Nolan writes that she is going to give up her desultory ways in 2021 and “begin a reading life that has more ambition.” She is going to read “more widely” and more “challenging” books from now on:

Now is not the time to chastise ourselves, and I’m not engaging in self-recrimination when I say that I want to expand my repertoire this year. We have lost not only emotional peace and comfort through the Covid-19 catastrophe, but also excitement. We have stress, certainly, and anxiety, but no dynamism, no movement. I believe that trying to read with a renewed openness will be not a punishment but something to assuage, just a little, the loss I feel from having no colour in my life. The notion of self-care can sometimes be recast as strictly indulgent behaviours to the detriment of the self who is supposed to be cared for; having a bottle of wine and a takeaway pizza to relax is great, but taking care of yourself also means doing the dishes and going for a walk and having a shower.

How often have I read an article in which the writer determines to read “dangerous” books (which usually means the opposite)—or read more books by women, or Nigerian writers, or poetry?

I don’t have a beef with goals like these. Who am I to tell someone that they shouldn’t read certain books. Do whatever you want! (I will say that likening reading “challenging” books—does she mean good ones?—to taking a shower is one of the worst analogies I’ve ever read.) Whatever. As long as you know that you will likely be the same person come 2022, with the same faults and same habits of mind.

I know a lot of people who think that reading certain ways or reading certain books will change them. This is so obvious to them that it is just a matter of doing the reading. If you read certain books or certain kinds of books, you will change, the thinking goes. You just have to read the books. Humbug.

Don’t get me wrong. Reading can change a person—so can moving, or going on walks every evening, or eating flat bread with green salsa, or visiting St. Petersburg, or watching your grandmother die. These things can change you for the worse or for the better. You can become a worse person while reading only good books. Do you believe that? I do. Lots of things change us in unpredictable ways and lots of things that we think will change us radically don’t change us much at all. Sometimes taking up a new habit is the result of a change that has already taken place. Sometimes taking up a new habit is a way of refusing to change.

I touch on this briefly in my chapter on Solzhenitsyn’s Prussian Nights in Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West:

In the middle of the poem, the narrator runs into an acquaintance from his university days — a lecturer in literature at the Moscow IFLI. When we first encounter the acquaintance — now a major in the army — he is sitting at the train station “dulled, drunk,” but still keeping a “sharp eye” on the German dispatcher, forcing him to accept trains of German civilians into the station so that Russian troops can rob, rape, and murder them. At first the narrator thinks the major is “bitter, ferocious, ominous, / Ill-meant,” but he changes his mind when he starts to speak with him and sees that he’s an intellectual. When he asks the major what he did before the war, he learns that they were at the same university and knew some of the same students. The talk turns to literature and philosophy, and the major is [seemingly] transformed:

Our conversation, stiff and awkward,

Starts at last to gather speed.

We stumble on in haste. There’s no

Interruption. Anxious, quick,

Drinking, smoking, eating now,

We talk and talk and talk and talk . . .

A call to books! He’s now their Tsar,

He has their pages in his heart!

— Essential life is sparking out

Of hazel, newly sobered eyes.

. . . . . . . . . . .

He’s turning sensitive, subtle, kind,

As though a deep inhaling burst

Some tight hoop around his chest:

He speaks even of Germany

With understanding, with sympathy.

But on his broad, well-flung-back shoulder,

The high proud epaulette remains,

And — in a trance the dispatcher

Still goes on accepting trains. (62–63)

As the lecturer speaks, in other words, literature seems to do its work. But the transformation is only superficial . . . Reading has only provided him with the veneer of humanity. In reality, he is a beast.

All this to say: Read whatever you want. But read good books because they are good books—not because of some secondary (or laughably therapeutic) benefit you think they might provide. My guess is if you read primarily for that secondary benefit, you’re almost sure not to get it. Read books by women because you want to read books by women, read books on aerospace because you want to read books on aerospace, read books of poetry criticism because you want to read books of poetry criticism (yes, you really do).

Enough commentary, you say, and you’re right. Let’s get to “the news”: Dexter Filkins takes us inside the U. S. Army’s warehouse of Nazi art: “The works at Fort Belvoir are earnest and at times accomplished, but so vacant of nuance and irony that they can approach kitsch. ‘In the Beginning Was the Word,’ painted in 1937 by Hermann Otto Hoyer, shows Hitler speaking to a roomful of rapt supporters. He wears civilian clothes and looks young; the painting depicts him at the time of the ‘Beer Hall Putsch,’ his failed coup d’état in Munich in 1923, which landed him and many of his supporters in jail. Hitler and his listeners are surrounded by shadows, but, in chiaroscuro style, their faces shine as if struck by a divine light. Hitler liked the painting so much that he bought it.”

Fans of H.G. Wells are upset over errors in a new commemorative two-pound coin, and rightly so: The “Martian machine that Wells described in The War of the Worlds as ‘a monstrous tripod, higher than many houses,’ appears to have four legs instead of three. And the image of the invisible man on the coin has the character wearing a top hat and not the ‘wide-brimmed hat’ that Wells described in his book.”

Half of the artists in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 are Jewish. So why is this ignored? “It seems that, in rewriting this chapter of art history by reinscribing artists who were “written out” of this narrative, the curators of Vida Americana replaced one exclusion with another.”

Homer for kids: “Modern reinterpretations of Homer and Troy are all the rage, but they come in many guises. David Malouf’s Ransom (2009) turns a single episode, Priam’s recovery of Hector’s body from Achilles, into a taut novel. Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2018) weaves the Iliad’s descriptions of individual deaths into a profoundly moving catalogue of remembrance. Recent revisionist novels – Madeleine Miller’s Circe (2018), Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018) and Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships (2019) – seek to amplify marginalized voices. Stephen Fry’s Troy belongs instead to a tradition of retelling Greek myths for a broader, mainly younger, readership. In this, he is a successor to earlier popularizers of Greek myth such as Edith Hamilton, Robert Graves and Roger Lancelyn Green, though Fry’s preferred mode is more debonair than that of his predecessors.”

Teenagers on TikTok think that a blind and deaf woman named Helen Keller never existed: “How could Keller’s existence be up for debate? There is extant film footage of the author, activist and disability rights advocate, who became deafblind after a childhood illness, learned to communicate using hand gestures and to understand others through the Tadoma method, and learned how to speak. She attended Harvard, wrote 12 books and many more essays and lectures. Her autobiography was adapted for film and stage. She travelled the world, campaigning on civil rights, labour rights and women’s suffrage. Her book on socialism was burned by the Nazis. She died in 1968. Her birthplace is now a museum. None of this seems to matter. Screenwriter Daniel Kunka, who came across the conspiracy theory when speaking to his teenage nephews and nieces, said they and other proponents don’t doubt the existence of Helen Keller the woman, but the fact that she was both deaf and blind, yet still able to write books.”

I’ve featured a number of articles on Penn Station over the years. Last week, it opened its new Moynihan Train Hall. In The New York Post, Richard Hough argues that the new hall is “a step in the right direction,” but the entire Penn Station complex needs to be reimagined and rebuilt: “Other cities and states aggressively recruit workers and companies, promising competitive advantages and a better life. Many New Yorkers have long commutes, making it a key lifestyle issue. As companies reconsider their expensive Big Apple offices, and a large swath of the economy has proved people can work from anywhere, it’s vital that New York accelerate a new ­vision for Penn Station and quality of life in the city to grant all workers the respect they deserve. Politicians will be tempted to declare victory with Moynihan Hall, but it’s hardly a transformation. If prior makeovers are prologue, it could serve as an excuse to delay the next phase of development. Moynihan Hall itself took decades to bring to fruition. While the new hall will relieve congestion from Penn Station, arriving commuters will still travel through cramped, underground Penn passageways to subway and other connections. Train tunnels remain inadequate and in dangerous ill-repair.”

A history of wood: “Though wood still plays an important role in the construction of our homes — think two-by-four stud supports and plywood in walls, flooring and roofing — our eye most often falls on exteriors covered in synthetic materials like vinyl siding. Some playgrounds that once featured lots of wood now have our kids screaming atop molded plastic play sets. And thousands of readers will take in this review on a digital device, not on a sheet of paper made from dried wood pulp. In a world where wood is, if not absent, increasingly out of sight, British biologist Roland Ennos suggests we may not be paying enough attention to its importance. He contends that wood is not merely useful but central to human history. ‘It is the one material,’ Ennos writes in The Age of Wood, ‘that has provided continuity in our long evolutionary and cultural story, from apes moving about the forest, through spear-throwing hunter-gatherers and ax-wielding farmers to roof-building carpenters and paper-reading scholars.’”

Over at Law and Liberty, I write about Melville’s politics in a review of Will Morrisey’s Herman Melville’s Ship of State: “Until relatively recently, it was common for scholars to read Melville as an unfailing proponent of the new thinking. Even as recently as fifteen years ago, Giles Gunn writes in A Historical Guide to Herman Melville that Moby-Dick stages ‘the death throes of an old civilization and the emergence of a new.’ Sure, Ishmael goes through hell aboard the Pequod under the rule of a satanic Ahab who is, for Gunn, a symbol of ‘1,900 years of Western thought with its fruitless engagement with the problem of evil,’ but Ishmael emerges safe in the end, with his ‘free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy,’ as Melville characterizes him at one point in the novel. The ‘Ishmael who returns to tell the story and reflect broadly on his experience is Melville’s prototype of the modern man—egalitarian and liberationist in his relation to others, to conventional beliefs and practices, and to his own body.’ In Herman Melville’s Ship of State, Will Morrisey argues convincingly that Moby-Dick in fact offers a critique of the premises and political goals of the Young America movement—premises and goals that are still with us today.”

Photo: Sand dunes on Mars

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