The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)

Though I am no fan of genres, I did find myself flipping to the back cover of this book more than once because I kept wondering: What is this? Apparently, the author called it a “factless autobiography.” Elsewhere, it’s listed as fiction.

It’s a non-linear meditation. Part-philosophy, part character study. It’s presented in fragments that were, I believe, re-ordered posthumously. But order, I suspect, did not matter much to Pessoa. There are elements of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” here. The ‘character,’ if the author’s persona can be called such a thing, is a clerk who seems to manage accounts. There are parts that I annotated heavily, parts that I found repellent, and parts I didn’t understand.

Though Pessoa would probably reject the notion of reading the book and then discussing it with others, this book definitely proves that it is not good for a reader to be alone.


The World Beyond Your Head (Crawford)

Entering this book is like stepping into the middle of a conversation. It can be disorienting at times, but I think there’s a point to it that’s best emphasized by Crawford’s discussion of an organ making / restoration company. We are all entering in the middle of a conversation. We are all standing on the shoulders of those giants. He’s right when he says that these days we think creativity depends on a lightning strike; it’s untrue.

I was pleased that Crawford’s subtitle, “On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction,” was not just about technology. He regrets our reliance on representations of the world – texting someone rather than talking to them face-to-face, for example – but he’s more interested in the distance that’s developing between us and sensation in, for example, cars. This leads him to one of the best sentences ever –

The basic design intention guiding Mercedes in the last ten years seems to be that its cars should offer psychic blow jobs to the affluent.

Hands-free driving? Are you kidding me? I’m not ready to yield to the notion that taking out seat belts would make us more cautious drivers, but I see his point.

Part of Crawford’s charm is that he’s able to quote both Kant and Springsteen in the same paragraph and make it work. Unfortunately, in the end, he lapses into the familiar lament that more of education needs to be hands-on without considering that the last time we did this, all of the boys and particularly the boys of color, ended up in shop class. Also, he neglects the more abstract life of the mind and dismisses it as having no value in its connection to the world. I wonder what he would say to President Obama’s comments here (Obama interviews Marilynne Robinson) —

Interviewing Marilynne Robinson in the second instalment of a two-part interview for the New York Review of Books (also available as audio), the American president asked the author if she was worried about people not reading novels anymore, as they are “overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time”. For himself, Obama said, “when I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels”.

“It has to do with empathy,” Obama told Robinson in a conversation which is published in the 19 November issue of the New York Review of Books. “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”
Shop Class as Soulcraft is the better book; this one continues the conversation (as it should). Join it.

A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (Berger with photographs by Mohr)

It is hard to classify this book which is something I enjoy. In the end, which Berger reminds us can no way be taken as a conclusion, he does call it an essay. So, let’s call it a photoessay. Mohr’s photographs show their age. But there is an honesty to these photographs. None, if I recall correctly, are posed. They tend to show faces, eyes that often reflect the patient’s feelings about Dr. Sassall.

It’s sometimes hard to know what Berger is getting at here. Even as he notes the way Sassall flirts with paternalism, he calls the people that Sassall serves “backwards.” Though I wish the balance between the specific and the abstract had been better, Berger’s philisophical insights – based on observing Sassall work – are telling. He asks important questions. He notes things that make this doctor in this community unique and, well, fortunate. He stresses the importance of doing your work – whatever it is seriously and as well as you can. And he insists that such efforts can not be measured or extrapolated – a notion that appeals to me, as a teacher, very much.

A thoughtful and worthwhile book.

fire this time. (Washington)

Washington calls this an extended essay. I’m not so sure. I think it defies genre. It’s an essay, a poem, a novel, a play. There are even some autobiographical elements. And philosophy. I was energized its hybrid nature. It’s challenging.

The only thing I can say about all of it – even the parts I am not sure I understood – is that it burns. The intensity is relentless. Inspired, I think, by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Washington is not angry. “I AM,” the prologue opens, “Rage.” And this book (I think it’s safe to call it that) which was written over two days takes us on the jagged rivers of this rage. It’s a book that deserves to be held close, re-visited. It’s a reminder, a reckoning. Open it at any point. The words will fly off the page. Pay attention.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire)

Well, this one had stared down at me from the shelf for long enough. I decided that it was finally time to push my way through. Margin notes, including many definitions, provided an historical account of my previous attempts. For a while, perhaps because I’m just older or, more probably, because I’ve studied many who came after Freire, I was doing well. I agreed with what he criticized about the ‘banking’ approach to education and advocated in terms of ‘problem-posing’ education. The end of chapter 1 was a period of real clarity, as I think I understood and recognized much of what he has to say about the oppressed here. Obviously, I became overconfident, and several subsequent sections stymied me.

My confidence returned at the outset of Chapter 3, as I found myself in enthusiastic agreement with what Freire offers here about language and how it is an act of creation. Then the gaps between margin notes became longer. I found myself turning pages with only the vaguest sense that I understood what Freire was saying. The sections on ‘Divide and Rule’ and ‘Cultural Invasion’ opened up for me in useful ways.

I don’t think anyone, especially me, can review Freire. His work, in my perspective, stands outside of such a realm. Instead, I will offer that though I found much of it hard going, I found it all – especially those moments that resonated with my personal and professional experiences – to be incredibly compelling. Freire asks many questions, and I close the book – temporarily – asking myself, “What are my myths?”

What is Judaism? An Interpretation for the Present Age (Fackenheim)

That the main title of this book is a question is absolutely appropriate. Fackenheim asks a lot of questions – ones that made me smack my forehead and wonder why I hadn’t thought of them, ones that rattled the very foundations of my beliefs. And he went some ways in the direction of responding to them in a thoughtful and generally accessible way.

First, he establishes the groundwork for asking these questions, saying that, “Judaism has been a questioning faith ever since Abraham called God to account in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah” (17) and reminds us, therefore, that “doubt has a legitimate place” (23).

He wonders why modern science has overtaken belief. Why do we need proof of G-d’s existence?

He also endorses Heschel’s stunning proclamation that “Pluralism is the will of God” (29). As easy as it might seem to cheer, that statement, Fackenheim reminds us, has implications for a Jewish faith that has as part of its very core, the notion that they, we, are the chosen people. Is it time to abandon that claim? For if we are chosen, then how can we support pluralism?

He writes that “every Jew seeking to come to grips with his religious situation must come to confront the fact of the State of Israel. He must do so for better or for worse” (32). As someone who is seeking to come to grips with his religious situation, current events this week have certainly forced me to consider the better and worse of Israel.

For Fackenheim, himself a Holocaust survivor, the State of Israel and the Holocaust are the starting points for any understanding of modern Judaism. They have created what he calls a “fidelity” to Judaism, and I think he’s right on this point for “[w]ithout fidelity [the Jews] would long have vanished from the earth” (46). We must, Fackenheim asserts, “hold ourself open to faith” (91). A simple and powerful statement; a hard thing to do for those of us subsumed by the modern view of things.

He asks, among other things, who is a Jew? Who is a Jew today? What is Jewish? (a “religious civilization”?). How have the Jews survived? They, we (why are the pronouns so hard?) have survived because of yeshivah, “a turning and returning in which the old is renewed” (58). “[T]he present must reach out to the past” (99, emphasis mine). The questions continue: “Does not intellectual integrity require us to view the world as closed to incursions of divinity in it?” (90). Why was Israel chosen? Do we need to abandon that part of our identity? (Fackenheim thinks so.) “How can a law or commandment that is divine be observed by such as himself, who are merely human?” (131). “[W]hat is a person without a past?” (144). “[W]ho is this God before Whom we stand?” (176). “How could Abraham obey?” is a great question, one that I wonder about even more now that I’m a parent. “If indeed there is a world to come, why did there have to be this world with its unspeakable agonies?” (274).

This is not an easy book. Some of the arguments and references are, at least for me, obscure. Fackenheim does have a way with a meaningful anecdote. I found some new heroes, like Gustav Schroeder, the Captain of the St. Louis, a German passenger ship that sailed for Cuba in 1939 with approximately 900 Jewish refugees fleeing to try to save their lives. When the ship was denied entry to Cuba and the United States, Schroeder had to turn back to Germany. He ordered the ship to proceed as slowly as possible to give those advocating for his passengers as much time as possible to try to find a place that would take in his passengers. Though this effort was in vain, Schroeder was definitely one of the 36 righteous men. I should know his name.