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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hannah Arendt and the opposition of violence and power

Given how violence-saturated our culture continues to be and how wedded we are in the U.S. to thinking violence is the only viable form of power, it's refreshing--and  important-- to read Arendt argue that violence is the antithesis of power. She and Audre Lorde think along similar lines: that power arises through community or the deep relationship building that Lorde called erotics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Quaker Thomas Kelly also advocated the formation of strong, deep (in their cases, spiritual) community as the key to speaking truth to power. It's also notable that all but Lorde formed their convictions about community in response to the shattering ultra violence and worship of violence that characterized the Nazi regime (and is now characterizing many of those in political power in this country).

It's important that we not accept, even if half consciously,  the canard that violence is the only form or the best form of power, despite that message being dunned into our heads over and over through the propaganda machine, including the fictional culture (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Westworld, etc). People keep noting the peaceful nature of the women's marches last Saturday: that's obviously important. Any whiff of violence simply gives the other side the justification to respond with extremes of violence. We also have to keep noting that non-violence can bring significant change, despite the persistence of the belief in the popular culture, reinforced by TV fictions, that it never works and is a sign of weakness and ineffectuality. As with violence, sometimes nonviolence wins and sometimes it loses. The fact that war so often is a dead loss never seems to delegitimize it: we can't let the fact that non-violence sometimes doesn't work blind to us to the many times it does work. 

  From the New York Times:

 Arendt draws a sharp distinction between power and violence as well as between liberty and necessity.
What does this mean? In her lexicon, power and violence are antithetical. Initially this seems paradoxical — and it is paradoxical if we think of power in a traditional way where what we mean is who has power over whom or who rules and who are the ruled.
Max Weber defined the state as the rule of men over men based on allegedly legitimate violence. If this is the way in which we think about power, then Arendt says that C. Wright Mills was dead right when he declares, “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”
Against this deeply entrenched understanding of power, Arendt opposes a concept of power that is closely linked to the way in which we think of empowerment. Power comes into being only if and when human beings join together for the purpose of deliberative action. This kind of power disappears when for whatever reason they abandon one another.
This type of power was exemplified in the early civil rights movement in the United States and it was exemplified in those movements in Eastern Europe that helped bring about the fall of certain Communist regimes without resorting to violence. Violence can always destroy power, but it can never create this type of power.


As humane people, we have the important task of keeping non-violent protest front and center as shake up and turbulence increasingly characterize the political discourse.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Eye of the Tiger

During a vacation, I saw a row of cards on display in a person's home.

Most of them showed pictures of tigers. I took them down and read them. Each one praised a person who had just graduated from college for hard work and dedication. Each one urged this person to be the "eye of the tiger."



What does it mean, I wondered, to be the "eye of the tiger?"

The internet offered some answers. According to the "Gratitude Guy,"* the eye of the tiger is the black spot behind each of a tiger's ears. When a tiger is about to move in for the kill, he flattens his ears forward, exposing these two black spots. These "eye spots" can confuse other animals as the tiger is about to attack.

In popular culture, the term means:

someone who is focused, confident, and has the look of being intense, somewhat cold but very fierce with a never say die attitude. ("Gratitude Guy)

It's also the popular  song associated with Rocky movies. Rocky had to develop the "eye of the tiger," the hunger and motivation to win and become a champion.

So when the parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles urged this college grad to have the "eye of the tiger," they meant to be focused on goals. They also meant being fierce and never giving up ("never say die.")

Because it is associated with a predator, the phrase can't help but suggest "going in for the kill." After all, the second "eyes" don't show until the tiger is ready to attack (kill) its prey.

I wondered what kind of ethic this is to urge in a young person. On the other hand, it seems a very "normal" way to think in American culture. We want to "win."

But are we "tigers," solitary, predatory animals? Social science teaches that humans are, above all, communal creatures. We are built to live in groups, and we function best in groups. We are very alert to social cues and try to be liked by other people. Being alone is one of the biggest predictors of early death. We are not mighty tigers. Instead, we are a species that is weak while all alone. We are built to depend on each other.

I imagine that the relatives of the college graduate meant to encourage being hardworking and striving for success. But it is troubling that the phrase has such a "killer" aspect.



After all, tigers will soon be extinct in natural habitats, surviving only in zoos, where they are dependent on others to protect them.

Maybe being an aggressive predator is not the best path to success.

Maybe "kill or be killed" means you die.

 People will tell me the phrase on the graduation cards is meant only in the most positive, encouraging way. It is meant only to build confidence.

All the same, I can't shake the idea that phrases like "eye of the tiger" promote a self-centered, aggressive attitude that is not realistic or helpful to society or the people in it in the long run. I wonder how much this kind of "off-hand" thinking or unexamined habit of mind led to the election of Donald Trump.

What do you think?

*(https://www.facebook.com/thegratitudeguypage/posts/837445546370387)









Tuesday, January 10, 2017

John Clare: "Peasant" poet

Although we don't normally think of England having a peasantry in the European tradition, the Encyclopedia Britannica calls John Clare a "peasant" poet. Clare was the son of a farm laborer and had little education, but made a splash with his first book of poetry. People like Charles Lamb took up a subscription so Clare would have an income and be free to write, but it wasn't enough to support his subsequent seven children and indigent father.  Clare ended his life in poverty. Britannica calls Clare a "Romantic" poet, but the poem below, which I liked for its matter-of-fact description of the natural world with no attempts at varnish, is far different from, say, Wordsworth and his ecstatic utterances about daffodils and solitary reapers. It's hard to image John Clare would miss the intense, back breaking labor of a reaper or the ugliness she might see the way Wordsworth does. 

John Clare seems to me less Romantic poet than a precursor to Hardy, at least in the verse below:




John Clare, "The Mouse's Nest"

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Spoiler blog: feminist and peace series

The Man in the High Castle, based loosely on Phillip K Dick's novel of an alternate history in which the Axis wins World War II and occupies the United States, is extraordinary in look and feel, acting, complexity and theme. The plot can be murky in places, as it is complex--there were moments in the series I had no idea what was going on--and drags in places (this is to say it is an imperfect work of art.) But nonetheless, it is extraordinary and worth watching.

New York in Nazi hands.

I call it feminist because the plot hinges on the actions of a woman, Juliana Crain, who lives as an oppressed American in Japanese-controlled San Francisco. She is not a catalyst for a male hero to act and save the day: it is precisely her own actions and her humanity that are all important. How often do we see that? And while she loves and is loved, that isn't the pivot of her life or the plot. In fact, it is some of the men who are more obsessed with her than she is with them, again, an extraordinary, feminist stance that the series enacts quietly.

Juliana Crane. Her actions derive from her courage and compassion. Her moral center is not evil.

Juliana gets dragged into the action, into history so to speak, when her sister, a member of the anti-Japanese/Nazi resistance, is killed. Juliana decides to deliver a film (in place of her sister) to the neutral zone between the Japanese and Nazi territories. "The man in the high castle," as he is called, has a large cache of films showing an alternative history in which the Allies won the war. The Nazis are after these films--to destroy them.

Juliana is motivated throughout the series not by ideology but by personal relationship and basic human compassion and decency. She has a moral compass rare to see in a TV protagonist these days: she actually cares about other people because she is able to put herself in their shoes and empathize with them: she is not about using others as "tools" for achieving her own  agenda (as is valorized (while disingenuously disavowed) in Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, West World, Game of Thrones, etc.) Thus, from the start, the Man series questions and problematizes blind adherence to ideology or groupthink or self above all else.  The series is centrally not about selfish personal ambition but about the larger good. I can't tell you what a (moral/ethical) relief it was to watch this.

Juliana makes mistakes because this is a series not prone to black and white distinctions. A big error is to trust a young man called Joe Blake who she meets in the neutral zone. He is at heart a decent person and he does genuinely fall in love with her. She feels all this and decides to trust him. What she doesn't know is that he is working undercover for the Nazis to get films for them. Because she trusts him, he gets hold of  an all-important film. But to complicate matters, Joe too has his heart in the right place. He is doing this, if I remember correctly, to get out from under the thumb of a prominent Nazi, John Smith and rebels against turning the film over to his Nazi overload. He, in fact, turns the film over to a group of insurgents, but is himself being played: once the film is on their boat, the Nazis blow it up, killing people. Joe looks like the Nazi traitor he is not: his intention was not to betray the resistance. Juliana also never meant for people to die, but they do.

In any case, Juliana doesn't lose her compassion and humanity: they are core to who she is and core to the survival of the human race in this series. She ends up having to flee and ask for asylum from the Nazis in New York: John Smith, to serve his own agenda, takes her under his wing. She doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but the Resistance insists she infiltrate his home and make friends with his wife and wife's friends (all married to prominent Nazis) or they will kill her for having given the film to Joe.

Thomas, a devoted young Nazi, is condemned to death by Nazi ideology.

She does infiltrate and to make a long story short, learns an important secret about John Smith's family: the son has muscular dystrophy. A doctor has come to euthanize the son, Thomas, because Nazi ideology dictates death to somebody carrying a hereditary illness. However, John loves son and like Juliana, put relationship above ideology: he stabs the doctor who has come to euthanize Thomas with the very needle filled with poison meant to kill Thomas. John is not going to sacrifice his beloved son to an ideology: here we have another complicated character, both a loathsome Nazi who is capable of cold-bloodedly killing enemies but also a loving father and a man who in the end works to prevent World War III at considerable risk to himself. (It's also clear that prior to the Nazi victory John and his wife were good Americans, and later Nazis: this seems a very real depiction of how people react to circumstances, as with the many die-hard Nazis who quickly became communists in East Germany after WWII.)

John Smith, American turned Nazi. He is more evil than good, but complicated, not a stick figure.

So as not to go on endlessly: the Nazis have the atom bomb, which the Japanese do not. When Hitler dies, his Nazi successor decides to immediately launch an all-out nuclear war against Japan, on the theory that this will usher in peace for all times (so absurd the series doesn't even have to comment on that as ridiculous). However, a wise, high-ranking Japanese (I am cutting out his story) delivers a film (actually an alternative history film) that shows the explosion of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Island, in this world an island utterly in Japanese hands. John Smith is able to deliver this film showing (though falsely) that the Japanese have a superior weapon, causing the Nazis to cancel their nuclear strike. Peace prevails through ingenuity and courageous action rather than violence.

In this ever problematizing series, however, violence does play a role in preserving peace: the course of history does depend on Juliana, as mentioned before. She finds out the Resistance has a film that shows Thomas confiding in her that he has a serious illness. The Resistance plans to give this film to the media, which would ensure that the loathed John Smith would be arrested and executed for protecting his son. Juliana protests this, saying a young teenaged boy (who of course would be euthanized) shouldn't be sacrificed. After she successfully defends herself against the Resistance's coldblooded and pre-planned attempt to kill her now that they don't need her anymore (she's no longer a useful tool), she makes the decision (which she hates) to kill the man who has the tape, and then she destroys the tape to protect Thomas. Unbeknownst to her, this act is what allows John Smith (who otherwise would be in prison) to fly to Berlin with the film of the hydrogen bomb that averts war.

I call this a peace series because instead of valorizing ruthless slaughter of the "enemy" and pursuit of one's own self-aggrandizing agenda, the series valorizes compassionate empathy and caring for other human beings, even if that particular human being is on the "enemy" side. This is what saves the world. I contrast this to, for instance, a scene (largely gratuitous except to communicate a toxic ideological message) in Game of Thrones where a group of peace advocate who refuse to fight are slaughtered: the message is fight or die, kill or be killed, peace is for hopelessly naive pussies. However, getting back to Man, the narrative is problematized: Juliana protects a Nazi teenager who sincerely, if naively, believes wholly in Nazi ideology. Yet this is what makes the series interesting: if Juliana had been a Nazi who protects a Jew, we would not stop and think "What???": we would simply approve. Here, we do have to stop and think and realize that we are just as bloodthirsty and stupid as the Nazis if we kill others simply on the basis of ideology, rather than extending compassion to innocent, if misguided, people.

This is a peace series as well because it shows the ugliness of killing: in another but connected storyline, Frank Frick, a problematic character too, a resistance fighter who is too abrasive, self-absorbed and too willing to sacrifice friends to ideology, becomes the central player in a plot to blow up a Japanese military installation that is developing atomic weapons. The plot succeeds, but the series unflinchingly shows us dead, dismembered, people: it shows us the brutality and ugliness of this action. It isn't just a scene of the enemy factory blowing up in a spectacular but distant and heroic (let's all cheer!) explosion of fire and smoke: it is a scene in which innocent humans getting horribly killed.

It is difficult finding oneself at times sympathizing with Nazis and condemning US resistance fighters, but that is what makes the series extraordinary: it actually evokes thought rather than a black and white narrative in which one unreflectively "cheers" on the "good guys" killing the "bad guys," for here, as in life, everything is more complicated.

The series thus far (there will be a season three) has accomplished the followings:

     A woman's actions and compassion are made central to the plot.

     Women do not simply function as sex objects but have life and being apart from men.

     Compassion, empathy and mercy are not denigrated, sneered at and spat upon as "weakness."

     Compassion, in fact, is more powerful than violence. It is a genuine alternative to violence. It can work. It is not inherently weak.

    Narrative is important: the existence of a counter-narrative in the form of the forbidden films gives people hope and changes the course of history. The Nazis understand the importance of narrative: do we?

    The series drives home the point that what matters is what we do, not what our outer shell says we are as a role. Nazis can behave compassionately and Resistance fighters can behave as ruthless barbarians. If we want to defeat barbarism, we can't become barbarians.

A quick read of some of the response to season two (which admittedly, does have some murky, draggy episodes in the middle) tells me that some people are not "getting" the central message of this series. All the more reason to highlight it.










Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Man in the High Castle: Extraordinary, feminist peace series

I had been despairing about popular media's complicity in the rise of an ultra-violent society now headed by misogynist authoritarian who believes in muscular solutions to most problems, when I saw the extraordinary final episode of the series The Man in the High Castle. I don't want to provide spoilers, as I hope people will watch this program, but I am buoyed with hope. Creating peace narratives has been very much on my mind lately, as that is a necessary precondition to creating the more peaceful society we desperately need: "Without imagination, the people perish." But where, I have wondered, are these narratives?

In Man in the High Castle, the Axis has conquered America.

 The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II and the United States has been divided between them. The Japanese run the Pacific Coast, the Nazis the eastern seaboard into the midwest, and a no-man's land exists in between. The story, which is complex, follows interactions between Americans who are members of a resistance movement fighting both the Nazi and Japanese occupations and their interactions with high ranking individuals in both regimes.

The action pivots on the decisions of Julianna, a compassionate character who exhibits strength and agency.

Without giving anything away, the series both shows the horrors (rather than the so-called glamor) of violence and refuses to draw sharp demarcations between good guys and bad guys, instead presenting complex characters. It teaches us not to judge by outward appearance, even if that outward appearance includes swastikas, iron crosses or emblems of a repressive Japanese regime: people are what they do, not the uniform they wear. No one--or any one nationality-- is purely good or purely evil--and a woman is the pivot of the action.

John Smith is a high ranking Nazi, but also a complex human being.

After sitting through so many highly popular and in most cases very good (high production values, superb acting, strong scripts) series that are predicated on the story arc of the "man with the biggest weapons willing to behave in the most ruthless way wins," it was a relief to watch an intelligent, well produced series that called into question that narrative, and in fact, portrayed that particular story line as Nazism, problematizing it (as it should be) from the start.

In Man, it is relationship, the humanizing of the Other, that averts lethal catastrophe. It illustrates Audre Lorde's theme in "The Uses of the Erotic" (and also the take-aways of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Kelly after their encounters with Nazi Germany) that political change comes from entering into genuine empathic relationship. Rather than the typical story line that depicts compassion as "weak," empathy in Man ends up to be the greatest strength.

I have to say I was dismayed when in West World, a prime example of a series valorizing "the most violent one wins," Delores, a gentle prairie woman in long dresses, has a pivotal moment in which she says (how cliched can we get?) having donned pants, "I'm not a damsel anymore" before blowing someone away to show her "empowerment." Aren't we tired of that yet? Really? Why do we continue to co-opt women as "tough grrls" into a male narrative of violence that never works, excepts to create ever more violence and dehumanization? It was heartening, almost exhilarating, to see here a story arc based on a different narrative (though with much violence along the way).

Audiences are expected to applaud when West World's Delores embraces violence and murder as if this represents "strength" and an "advance." We really need to progress beyond this kind of thinking. That this is the "masculine" solution is made clear by Delores's adoption of male clothes. 

Because Man in the High Castle has such a complicated story line and is predicated on moral complexity rather than black and white, good and evil characters, I fear that people won't "get" what the series is trying to convey. But hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I am writing this hoping that the series follows the novel, as that would make it a fine novel indeed, at least thematically, but I don't know. I also haven't yet read anything about the series, as I haven't wanted to inadvertently stumble across spoilers. I will try to find out more.




Saturday, December 31, 2016

Virginia Woolf, reader

We are reading Hermione Lee's biography, Virginia Woolf. I loved the idea of a chapter on reading (chapter 23, called "Reading") , enjoyed and in many ways agreed with Ellen about it, and yet found myself ultimately disappointed, despite some of the small gems that emerged. This is a chapter as much about writing as reading, about reading as the prelude to or part of the dance with writing. Of course, reading is inevitably always that (except for the rare reader who never writes) but I suppose I had hoped for a chapter that dealt wholly with Woolf as reader and what she read. After all, the book as whole is about the writer.

I say this because you can learn (or end up against a wall of mystery which is informative in its own way) about a person from the books they return to: the touchstone books. I was aware of this in the two figures I've done some intense biographical research on, Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer. I'll stick to Day in this instance. In reading her journals, which span 50 years, I learned that Day was a great, avid reader. She loved and learned from books and like Woolf and other readers she had a strong emotional response to books: they were real to her. Over and over she returned to certain books: Queechy by Susan Warner (unreadable to us but she loved it), The Brother's Karamazov (she had quotes by memory and leaned into them deeply), even Austen, especially, perhaps, Mansfield Park. These books wove themselves into her soul, along with others. They may not all be to our taste but that only works to reinforce the alterity of other people from other times: they are not us. They receive books differently. We simply can't view them (narcissistically?) as mirrors of ourselves. 

But Lee, frustratingly, never tells us what were Woolf's touchstone books. What books did she return to again and again over the course of her life? She must have had such books or, if not, isn't that striking, notable, worth a mention? But we get no such inventory. ... I am simply bemused that Lee doesn't cover this.

In any case, Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc...). We learn that reading is Woolf's life's pleasure and her life's work ... except when, on the last page of the chapter, it's not. But mostly, it's a "despotic" desire. Woolf reacts to books emotionally--they shock her, they arouse her emotions, make her feel. I know well the emotions a great book can elicit, but also wonder how this connects with Woolf's mental illness, if there is some sort of extra-acuteness in Woolf, but Lee doesn't comment. 

I agreed strongly with Woolf's perception that in a book "we have to possess ... the whole" before we can grasp a single detail. Yes. Not that we can't grasp details as we go along on a first reading, but to really grasp a book, you do have to grasp the whole of it. 

Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped "fertilize" her mind for the "great." I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the "thing." 

Reading can even be sexual for Woolf, and I agree with that. I also understood wanting a day perfectly fit together, like a cabinet with beautiful compartments, and her distress when her best writing time in the morning was interrupted--'wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone" or she had to use her best time to write books reviews to earn money. She could be describing my life: how to hang on to that prime writing time, when the brain is at its best, how to guard it? But this, of course, is about writing, not reading. 

We learn that as a writer, she wants a fiction that moves faster than the Victorian novel, that is more fluid, impressionistic, a shower of atoms. We learn that when she writes, she wants "a wall for the book from oneself." Lee takes this to mean Woolf wanted to write not too autobiographically. 

At the end of the chapter Lee talks about Woolf's belief that women read and write in a particular way about other women's lives. And Lee writes the cryptic last paragraph about Woolf having a moment of frustration with writing and by implication reading, what Lee calls a "moment of despair." I call the last paragraph a way to evade having to draw any conclusions or summation from a diffuse chapter that dances and weaves all too amorphously around Woolf's reading life.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Ten best rereads 2016

I spent much of the first half of the year revisiting books, poems, plays and essays I had read before, often delving back far into the past to revisit books I hadn't thought about much in decades. Because the reading was so far flung, I allowed all genres onto this list, which is assembled in no particular order. But I found myself particularly appreciating the following works:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: The more I read it, the better it gets. Fitzgerald packed a tremendous amount of satire and social commentary, not to mention Gothic elements, into this grand, romantic tragic story: it's amazing what can be pulled from a mere 55,000 words. The novel is reminding me more and more of Mary Poppins's black bag, out of which you might retrieve a table and chairs.  Lately--or earlier in the fall perhaps--I listened to the popular songs of circa 1920 that made it into the novel through snatches of lyrics, and they too add a layer of complexity ... And speaking of lyricism, Fitzgerald's language is extraordinary. The novel was also particularly prescient this year: almost a century later, Trump fits Tom Buchanan to a tee: a privileged racist sexist brutal bullying brainless baboon who gets away with anything due to his wealth.

2. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: I first read this book when I was 11 or 12 and very sophisticated it seemed indeed. Now I read it as the simple satire it is, but still enjoy the vivid imagination Huxley invested in both his new world and the world of the Indian reservation. The questions it raises about what it mean to be human and how to constitute the good life remain relevant to us, and that buena vita must fall somewhere between the mindless, soulless ruthlessly conditioned consumer-hedonism of the new world and the tortured self-flagellation, sin and guilt of John the (Shakespeare-reading) Savage's world: maybe we would find that equilibrium on the island to which Bernard Marx is banished?

3.  William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:" This very (deceptively) simple poem gave me great joy and solace last spring: Wordsworth fully communicated to me the joy he felt watching the thousands of daffodils, like a crowd of people, in front of a lake swaying in the breeze. The poem simply made me happy to read and reread.  More distant contenders that I enjoyed would include Byron's "She walks in Beauty like the Night" (what can be more simple than  she's-so-beautiful-with-her-long-black-hair-like-the-night-sky-and-eyes-like-stars, followed by a stanza in which the poet insists he knows by looking at her she ain't-no-ho, and finally Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," which captures solitude so well, and brought to mind all the nineteenth-century prints showing a single person in a solitary scene that my grandparents used to hang on their walls.

4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: I never much liked this play before rereading it this past spring, but now have fallen under its spell. It used to seem to me only a very dark tragedy about the horrors of ambition, but suddenly it cracked open to me in all its multiple ironies: Lady Macbeth's conscience (not so different from a description I recently read of Hitler's night terrors) rears up as a timid but relentless being after all her bold words of smashing baby's brains out, and then the initially terrifying weird sisters are shown up as rank, fumbling amateurs in the witching biz by the truly terrifying Hecate, who is responsible for the final undoing of Macbeth: against her, Lady Macbeth is nada ... and on it goes. It was also a pleasure revisiting if not entirely rereading Othello, A Midsummer's Night Dream and dipping into sections of Julius Caesar ... not to mention Romeo and Juliet --  comic in its depictions of the histrionic impatience of lovelorn adolescence--and yet understanding of its seriousness too.

5. Audre Lorde, "The Uses of the Erotic:" I loved this essay that defined the erotic as the opposite of the pornographic and suggested we gain power for social movements as we build relationships with others based on a deep intimacy that can be sexual, but also and primarily, emotional/intellectual, and always authentic.

6. Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play:" I include this at the risk of sounding pretentious, but I did reread it this year for the first time in 30 years--and did have to read it twice to "get it"--but it held up and is really a stunning seminal piece. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin (see below), if people would just read this primary source, half the nonsense and hype about "deconstruction" would go away. We'd use terms like "kluge" instead of "bricolage"--and of course, none of this is as interesting as it was in times past as more of it has seeped (sort of) into the culture. But it was still exciting enough on revisit that I introduced it to my students last semester via Powerpoint: and some of them took cell phone shots of the slides.

7.  Virginia Woolf, "The Moth:" I read or reread several Woolf essays last year, but this minutely observed meditation on the life of 24-hour moth on her windowpane stuck with me. Beautifully described, and what seems to be my favorite word this year: astringent.

8.  Jane Austen, Persuasion: I reread all of Austen's major novels (I almost always catch most of them every year), except Sense and Sensibility in 2016. I found things to delight in all five I reread, but am choosing Persuasion because I hadn't reread it in several years and because I was so taken by the little vignette in which Anne comes across Admiral Croft staring at the painting of a ship in a shop window and critiquing it in a very literalist way for being painted out of proportion. It's these details that keep me returning to Austen.

9. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin: It's so underrated a novel and so often read through the false lens of post-Civil-War reconstructions that strip it of its savage irony, satire, dissection of human weaknesses, intelligent discussion of race and oppression, as well as the stunning moral courage of Uncle Tom, that one could scream. On top of all else, the "real" Uncle Tom is anything but an "Uncle Tom." It's far more than merely a novel of sentiment, though it's that too. Its reception since the Civil War is a case study in how to defang a threatening and subversive novel by distorting it out of all recognition. People need to read it, imho, if only to push back against how utterly it's been misrepresented by all those who "know" what it's about (except they don't). I also had a chance to dip into David Reynolds's (no relation of mine) Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, which discusses the novel's impact around the globe. Maybe in 2017, I'll actually read the entire Mightier than the Sword.

10. Anton Chekhov, "Gooseberries:" I was so taken with this story, though I can't say that I "like" it as a pleasure read, that I used it in class this fall. Much complexity and food for thought resides in this Chaucer-like story-within-a-story on the road.

I would have definitely included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the list, but had to drop my reread halfway through. But I was stunned with what I read. It's extraordinary.  Runners-up also include George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm: I reread both, and they retain, more than ever, relevance to our times. Shaw's Pygmalion, a wicked satire and send-up of the class system with a satisfyingly unromantic ending, continues to satisfy, as does an old favorite, Thoreau's Walden chapter 2. Emerson's, "Self-reliance," which I reread for the first time perhaps since high school and is an eloquent argument for being true to yourself, impressed me with its enormous string of quotable statements. Naturally, I would add my own book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the reread list.

On the other hand, as I revisited other books, I found they left me, some for reasons I can't pinpoint, with a feeling of distaste: To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men. Whatever feeling of delight  "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" raised in me, these raised the opposite. And I am not denying that these are good books: perhaps their messages are too heavy handed.

I found myself feeling so-so about A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a middle schooler, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which moved me to tears in late elementary school, and Into the Wild and Nickel and Dimed.