Robert Pogue Harrison teaches literature at Stanford. His books include Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. (August 2017)

IN THE REVIEW

The True American

Henry David Thoreau: A Life

by Laura Dassow Walls

Walden

by Henry David Thoreau, with an introduction and annotations by Bill McKibben
These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.

Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell

William Blake: Dante Running from the Three Beasts, 1824–1827

Dante: The Story of His Life

by Marco Santagata, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
The dust jackets of modern editions of The Divine Comedy typically call it a “grand culmination” of late medieval civilization, yet Dante’s vision of politics, history, Limbo, Purgatory, and the church was anything but standard fare for the Middle Ages. His poem appears more like an act of epic defiance, …

The Ultimate Reader

Alberto Manguel in his library near Châtellerault, in southwest France, 2007

Curiosity

by Alberto Manguel
When he was sixteen Alberto Manguel met the nearly blind Jorge Luis Borges in the Pygmalion Anglo-German bookshop in Buenos Aires and, from 1964 to 1968, read aloud to him on a weekly basis. The encounter now seems to have been destined, for if there’s anyone alive today who is …

Dante on Trial

Dante recognizing his former teacher Brunetto Latini among the damned; engraving by Gustave Doré for Canto 15 of Dante’s Inferno

Dante and the Limits of the Law

by Justin Steinberg

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity

by Prue Shaw
When the Black Guelfs seized power in Florence in November 1301 through a coup d’état backed by Pope Boniface VIII, their first order of business was to liquidate their political enemies among the White Guelfs.1 Dante Alighieri, who was away on a diplomatic mission at the time, was one …

Dante: The Most Vivid Version

Domenico di Michelino: Dante Reading from the ‘Divine Comedy,’ 1465

Inferno

by Dan Brown

Inferno

by Dante, translated from the Italian by Mary Jo Bang, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher
The mystery of Dante’s Divine Comedy has little to do with the encoded games of hide-and-seek that Dan Brown plays with readers in his best-selling mystery thriller. It has to do instead with the poem’s staying power. How is it possible—after so many centuries of manhandling by commentators, translators, and imitators, after so much use and abuse, selling and soliciting—that the Comedy still has not finished saying what it has to say, giving what it has to give, or withholding what it has to withhold? What is the source of its boundless generosity?

A New Kind of Woman

The Lives of Margaret Fuller

by John Matteson

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

by Megan Marshall
In a letter to James Freeman Clarke in 1833 Margaret Fuller declared, “All biographies…make me sick at heart and make it hard to realize that there is a Heaven.” Our age shows no such distaste. We clamor for biographies, believing that the lives of our thinkers, statesmen, artists, and scientists …

NYR DAILY

Our Animal Hell

Francisco de Zurbarán: Agnus Dei, 1635-1640

We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is that, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those that we allow to roam “wild” in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms.

The Children of Silicon Valley

A scene from Mike Judge's HBO series Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley does not change the world as much as it changes my way of being in it, or better, of not being in it. It changes the way I think, the way I emote, and the way I interact with others. It corrodes the worldly core of my humanity, leaving me increasingly worldless. Thoreau wrote: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” If only that were unconditionally true.