Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Things I've Been Reading

Some essays, interviews, and transcripts I've been reading recently:

"Markets and Morals" by Michael Sandel, a transcript of the first of the BBC's Reith Lectures for 2009. Sandel's argument is about how, without realising it, we may have "drifted from having a market economy to being a market society", and about all the things in life that are only cheapened by trying to understand them through an (increasingly pervasive and acceptable) economistic logic. Sandel, who teaches a popular course on justice at Harvard University, is also the author of a new book called Justice.

"My Father", an arresting essay by the American writer Leonard Michaels, whose Collected Essays have just been brought out in America by FSG. ("Six days a week he rose early, dressed, ate breakfast alone, put on his hat, and walked to his barbershop at 207 Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about half a mile from our apartment. He returned after dark. The family ate dinner together on Sundays and Jewish holidays. Mainly he ate alone. I don’t remember him staying home from work because of illness or bad weather. He took few vacations. Once we spent a week in Miami and he tried to enjoy himself, wading into the ocean, being brave, stepping inch by inch into the warm blue unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back up the beach on skinny white legs. “I nearly drowned,” he said, very exhilarated. ")

A conversation between Philip Roth and the Irish writer Edna O'Brien, which is also the first of the interviews with writers collected in Roth's excellent book Shop Talk ("I think it is different being a man and a woman, it is very different . I think you as a man have waiting for you in the wings of the world a whole cortege of women - potential wives, mistresses, muses, nurses. Women writers do not have that bonus. The examples are numerous, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Emily Dickinson, Marina Tsvetayeva . I think it was Dashiell Hammett who said he wouldn't want to live with a woman who had more problems than himself. I think the signals men get from me alarm them.")

"Not A Gentle Kind of Zen", an essay by the cricketer Ed Smith on the footballer Zinedine Zidane. ("For an intimate study of ‘Federer’ at work, watch the film Zidane – a 21st Century Portrait. I had approached the film with some trepidation as I didn’t expect to be much bothered about a real-time replay of the match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on 23rd April 2005.How wrong I was. It is the best insight into the mind and movement of a great sportsman I have ever experienced in any medium. Seventeen synchronized cameras focused exclusively on Zidane throughout the match. The film, which follows the first kick to the last, takes us not only onto the pitch, but also into the imaginative world of a great player in the final chapter of his career.") An essay on this film by Manohla Dargis, a film critic I enjoy reading greatly, is here.

An interview with the poet and critic Clive Wilmer ("Poetry is inherent in language, so all language is potential poetry. Language as we speak it has all the characteristics of poetry: rhythm, music, richness of meaning, analytical and critical qualities. By being a poet one is foregrounding what is already in language. One is trying to take the potential of the language and make it manifest....While you are in love with language, you also have to be in love with what is beyond language. Language is, in a sense, an attempt to take possession of the world. A lot of what I write is an attempt to take hold of what I love but can’t really have.")

And last, an interview with the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, who makes a number of subtle and stimulating observations over the course of 25 pages ("The most fruitful intellectual encounters are not those in which you are in total disagreement with the other person. A dialogue, to pick up a hackneyed term, is situated somewhere between war and perfect harmony; if different voices merge into one or if they fight each other tooth and nail, their plurality brings no enrichment. I’ve learned the most from authors with whom I could peacefully travel a certain distance before they lead me off in an unknown direction. When you’re three-quarters in agreement and a quarter in disagreement, the latter becomes the starting point of keener,more nuanced thinking. And when you have that many things in common, you have no desire to engage in a head-on confrontation anymore.") Todorov is also the author of Facing The Extreme: Moral Life In The Concentration Camps and, most recently, Torture and the War On Terror, which I'm reading right now.

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