The small family farm is one of the last places—where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker—and some farmers still do talk about “making the crops”—is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need…
Summer, for many of us, offers a few of those long, unbroken stretches of time that, unlike the rest of our hurried, fragmented lives, positively cry out for a great big, abiding read. So perhaps this is the moment finally to tackle War and Peace. Widely acknowledged as the greatest novel ever written, War and Peace is also a perennial bestseller, with new editions appearing regularly, almost a century and a half after its first publication. Here are just a few of the reasons Tolstoy’s epic continues to entertain, enlighten, and inspire readers of all ages and backgrounds, and why you, too, may want to consider putting it at the top of your summer reading list:
1. It’s a mirror of our time. At its core War and Peace is a book about people trying to find their footing in a world being turned upside down by war, social and political change, and spiritual confusion. The existential angst of Tolstoy and his characters is entirely familiar to those of us living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and his novel has important things to say to us in this moment. Over and over again the book shows how moments of crisis can either shut us down or open us up, helping us to tap into our deepest reservoirs of strength and creativity.
[Available locally from The Mendocino Book Company]
Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, is many things: an account of his relationship with Snowden, an indictment of political leaders who have used the pretext of “terrorism” to mask their unlimited power-lust, a technical analysis (complete with illustrations culled from the National Security Agency’s own secret archives) of America’s emerging police state. Most significant and enjoyable for me, however, it is a searing indictment of what “mainstream” journalists have become – servitors of a corrupt political class blinded by their own arrogance.
From The Friendly Atheist
Last year, Annaka Harris published a children’s book that was ideal for freethinking parents. It was called I Wonder and it was about a little girl who learned that it was perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” regarding the mysteries of the universe.
From now through Mother’s Day (May 11), you can download a PDF of the book for free. Get it while you can, even if you don’t have children, because it’s a fine example of Humanist values showcased in a very accessible format. We need more books like this….
From The Millions
Earlier this month Amazon released a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. It joins Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read, The Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read, Huffington Post’s more manageable 30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30, and The Guardian’s ambitious and inflexible 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.
These lists serve a purpose if you’re Jay Gatsby furnishing a library or if you’ve, say, just arrived from Mars and have no knowledge of Earth books. What they miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery. In my 10 years working at bookstores, no one ever came in and asked me what they should read before their death — they would ask me what my favorite book was, or if there were any great new books no one was talking about, or they would just want me to leave them alone so they could explore on their own.
I discovered one of my favorite books because the author called our store and charmed the living daylights out of me. I found another in a box of old books that my Russian literature professor left outside his office to give away. So while I do think that you should read the canon if it interests you, I think it’s more important that you read the books that find their own way into your hands.
Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.
1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”
This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.
The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.
Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz?
“Science fiction is a metaphor, but it is not for predicting the future.” These are the words of science fiction visionary James Cameron, the filmmaker behind such classics as Terminator, Titanic and Avatar.* When Cameron made this statement, he was trying to combat one of the most widely held misconceptions about science fiction, which is that it seeks to foretell the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is wrongheaded to fault science fiction storytellers for wrong predictions or credit them for right ones, when most see themselves not as envisioning the future at all, but rather as weaving imaginative tales set in possible futures.
Certainly the authors featured in the short story collection After Oil: SF Visions Of A Post-Petroleum World would resist being pegged as future-seers. Their sole ambition is to spin entertaining yarns set in plausible versions of the near future. These futures aren’t consistent with one another, as they would be in a shared-world anthology, whose authors deliberately set their stories in a common setting. Instead, they comprise a series of unrelated, self-contained “what-ifs.” Their authors all responded to a call for short story submissions on the blog site of scholar and futurist John Michael Greer in the fall of 2011. Greer had resolved to secure a publishing contract for the first-ever anthology of post-oil-age fiction. In the weeks that followed, Greer received many excellent stories, landed a publishing contract
From BILL MORRIS
When I wrote an over-the-moon review of Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, here last year, I thought I was letting readers in on a well-kept secret. I thought wrong. The book got acres of good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic – along with a growing army of devoted readers – and it went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Award, one of the world’s richest literary prizes, besting such brand-name authors as Michel Houellebecq and Haruki Murakami.
Now Barry is back with a new collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island, his second. It shares the virtues that made Bohane such an astonishment – prose that rollicks and judders and constantly delights; a keen ear for the spoken language of Barry’s native western Ireland; and above all, at least in the very best stories, a way of lassoing moments of mystery that have the power to transform the lives of Barry’s characters, a motley Irish medley of disturbed young women, devious old spinsters, blocked poets, thugs, boozers, exiles, and tortured civil servants. There is rich music, high humor, and deep blackness on every page.
I believe this collection of 13 stories can be divided into two roughly equal halves. Half of them are not so much fully formed stories as sketches, riffs, slices of life. If this sets them in a minor key, they are nonetheless uniformly compelling. In “Across the Rooftops,” for instance, two young people fail to connect with a first kiss. End of story. In “Wistful England,” a lovelorn Irishman lives in misery in East London with a bunch of alcoholic ruffians until, one boozy night, his old lover reappears, then promptly vanishes. End of story. In “The Mainland Campaign,” an I.R.A. bomber plants a bomb in a guitar case in a London bookstall, then boards a bus with a blonde German girl. End of story.
Doesn’t sound like much, but there are fully lived lives in all of these sketches, and the writing is a seamless marvel.
From CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies. And in case you are deluded enough as to think they care, you’ll learn that they already hate you. He quotes his former Washington Post colleague Henry Allen: “Washington feels like a conspiracy we’re all in together, and nobody else in America quite understands, even though they pay for it.”
Contrary to the subtitle, there are actually two funerals, which constitute the high — and low — points of the book:
From PETER OSNOS
The business of publishing and selling books will continue its radical change. But some things are eternal.
There have been many changes over the decades in the way books are sold. Today, we are clearly in the midst of a profound upheaval as the digital age shapes habits that will be an increasing part of the world of books for the foreseeable future. But whatever happens in the coming years, there will always be a place for incomparable booksellers of which Tattered Cover is the unquestioned model.
In the most basic sense, the purpose of our industry has remained the same for centuries: the telling of stories and the chronicling of events. Whether the medium was the symbols and images scrawled on the walls of caves, scrolls painstakingly drawn by hand, or the Gutenberg press which made books available
From D. P. LYLE
New York Journal of Books
A quirky protagonist surrounded by even quirkier characters mired in oddball intrigue—all in South Florida, of course.
This story revolves around Florida Keys detective Andrew Yancy, newly busted to the role of restaurant inspector, aka “roach patrol,” for attacking one Dr. Clifford Witt, husband of a former Yancy lover, with a handheld Black & Decker vacuum cleaner—all videoed by cruise liner tourists with cell phones in hand.
Yancy embarks on several hit and miss attempts to get his badge back. No easy proposition. Particularly since his boss, Sheriff Sonny Summers, opinion is that Yancy was lucky they didn’t “charge you with sodomy.”
[Available from Mendocino Book Company]
There is no one definition of a summer book. It can be a 1,000 page biography, a critically acclaimed literary novel, a memoir everyone is talking about. Or it might be your favorite guilty pleasure: romance, crime, science fiction. Whatever you choose it should be able to sweep you away to another world. Because there is nothing like getting totally lost in a book on summer day. Here are a few books that swept away some of our favorite critics.
From JOEL LOVELL
New York Times Magazine
In Colum McCann’s apartment, on the ninth floor of an elegant building just off Central Park, there’s a room where he writes that looks as if it were airlifted in from the woods. It’s all rough-hewed floorboards and shelves made of unvarnished pine and two-by-fours and a long, thick cedar slab for a desk. At one end of that desk there’s a space that used to be a closet, but at McCann’s request, the friend who built the office took off the door and put a platform in there, and this is where McCann writes, “in the cupboard,” as he put it. “It concentrates my vision. No windows, two very tight walls.” He sits on a couple of cushions with his computer on his lap. On the wall beside him are dozens of messages scrawled by friends and kids and fellow writers and some by McCann himself: “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” “Keep yourself away from answers, but alive in the middle of the question.” “Stay rotten.” “Hi, Dad, I love you.”
The medal McCann received for winning the National Book Award in 2009 dangles from one of the shelves. Around the office are scattered various vintage photographs related to the subjects of his books — one of a group of sandhogs standing in the massive mouth of a subway tunnel (“This Side of Brightness,” 1988), another of the World Trade Center looming through the clouds over Lower Manhattan (“Let the Great World Spin,” 2009) — and there’s also a beautiful framed shot of a pair of grime-encrusted shoes.
From The Guardian
The genre’s denser stories can seem rebarbative to ‘general readers’, but these books tell immediately relevant, compelling tales…
Science fiction is all around us, from clandestine electronic surveillance to robots taking our jobs, from death-dealing drones in the skies of Pakistan right through to the second industrial revolution unleashed by 3D printing. It’s more than a century since writers began charting the technological dream of human civilisation we now live in, but some readers are still put off by a writer who reaches into the future, a novel with a spaceship on the cover.
Like any enduring cultural experiment, science fiction has evolved its own codes, its own logic. Some of the genre’s most intense and visionary work talks in a shared language of concepts that can be hard for the uninitiated to penetrate
From ROBERT W. MERRY
The National Interest
Thanks to Ron Epstein
JEAN-JACQUES Rousseau famously lamented, “Man is born to be free—and is everywhere in chains!” To which Alexander Herzen, a nineteenth-century Russian journalist and thinker, replied, in a dialogue he concocted between a believer in human freedom and a skeptic, “Fish are born to fly—but everywhere they swim!” In Herzen’s dialogue, the skeptic offers plenty of evidence for his theory that fish are born to fly: fish skeletons, after all, show extremities with the potential to develop into legs and wings; and there are of course so-called flying fish, which proves a capacity to fly in certain circumstances. Having presented his evidence, the skeptic asks the believer why he doesn’t demand from Rousseau a similar justification for his statement that man must be free, given that he seems to be always in chains. “Why,” he asks, “does everything else exist as it ought to exist, whereas with man, it is the opposite?”
This intriguing exchange was pulled from Herzen’s writings by John Gray, the acclaimed British philosopher and academic, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. As the title suggests, Gray doesn’t hold with that dialogue’s earnest believer in freedom—though he has nothing against freedom. He casts his lot with the skeptic because he doesn’t believe freedom represents the culmination of mankind’s earthly journey.
From DAN SHIPPER
My girlfriend says I have a thing for books. I probably spend more money on books than any other expense, aside from food. Walking into a bookstore with a good selection makes me want to rent a truck and haul their entire stock away to pile in my house so that I can read every single one of them.
If your goal is to read a lot–like mine is–there are a few obstacles to overcome:
- Keeping track of the books you want to read
- Refining the list down to ones you’re going to read in the near feature
- Actually reading them
- Retaining the important parts
Keeping Track of What You Want to Read
Nothing is worse than wanting to get a new book and facing the empty Amazon search bar, their shallow recommendations staring back at you, KNOWING that there’s something better out there for you, but not being able to remember the 10+ books that you really wanted to read but never wrote down.
I have a two pronged solution for this:
I have one Evernote note (started in 2010) with almost every book that has caught my eye in the last three years. It’s pretty huge. Evernote is great for this purpose because it also has a mobile version, so wherever you are you can pull out your phone and type the book in for later.
From RON JACOBS
The Rag BLog
Despite spending several days in detention facilities in the late 1970s and early 1980s because of my opposition to nuclear power and its consequent dangers and debris, I honestly never thought nuclear power would be gone by 2013. The setup for the industry was just too sweet of a deal.
However, I did have hope that nuclear power’s reputation would be so tainted that no new plants would ever be considered. Unfortunately, even those hopes were for naught. To make matters even worse, nuclear power — perhaps the most wasteful and most dangerous form of power generation — is actually being touted as a “green” source of power.
This support is not just coming from the industry, either. One-time opponents like Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand and former Greenpeace president Patrick Moore are now on record as supporters of a power source and industry they used to oppose vehemently. When considering these retreats, the phrase “two steps forward, one step back” comes to mind.
Libcom.org’s reading guide on literature with a focus on work and accurate representations of working class life, culture and resistance to power.
Post Office – The job as a postal worker is a thankless one as Bukowski tries to keep his sanity delivering mail around Los Angeles.
Factotum – Bukowski recounts the conditions in 1944 having faced rejection from the draft, yo-yoing in and out of employment.
Ham on Rye – Semi-autobiographical ‘coming-of-age’ novel, telling the story of a young man growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Rivethead – Down and out memoirs of an assembly line worker for GM Motors over the 1980s. In amongst co-workers going postal in the local bar, drinking on the job and witnessing mental breakdowns, Hamper wrote the book during his shifts on the shop floor.
A Farewell to Arms – Anti-militarist novel set against the backdrop of the Italian campaign during World War One
From PATRICIA VIEIRA
Assistant Professor, Georgetown University
Reading has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains
In a meeting at the university where I teach, a colleague bemoaned that, after years of research in Writing Studies, no one had yet found a sure path to turn students into good writers. It may not be a magic solution but the answer to the problem is out there: it is reading! The correlation between an avid reader and a proficient writer is well known to parents who encourage their children to read from early on and to schoolteachers who strive to instill in their students a love for literature. But if the reading-writing connection appears to be a truism, it is trickier to assess the broader impact of literature in our lives. Does literature make us good and, conversely, is it good for us?
Are we happier after finally finishing The Magic Mountain? Will all murderers repent once they read the uplifting ending of Crime and Punishment? Will we become smarter by going through the Collected Poems of TS Eliot?