Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
by A.O. Scott
This Thing We Call Literature
by Arthur Krystal
Two lucid and intelligent books, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism and Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature, explore the same complex theme: criticism as a public art and a public service, performed, however, by critics who speak for themselves, addressing individual readers, not a collective public. Both books …
James Merrill began his public career as a poet at twenty-five, four years after he graduated from Amherst, with the exquisitely crafted, tautly controlled lyrics in his First Poems (1951). His style gradually relaxed over the next twenty-five years, but he remained committed to his early elegance and virtuosity. Then, …
Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism
by Judy Wajcman
Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age
by Bernard E. Harcourt
Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.
Historians argue among themselves whether Thucydides is a moralizing philosopher or, in a common phrase, “the first scientific historian.” What is radical about him, and gives him his unerring clear-sightedness, is that he is both. He understands morals, not as a set of arbitrary rules imposed or wished upon reality, but part of the fabric of reality itself, in the same way that Greek philosophy had begun to understand physical laws as inseparable from reality. Thucydides came to the same insight that Ludwig Wittgenstein recorded centuries later when he wrote that ethics “must be a condition of the world like logic.” In the two years since the 2016 US election, it seems ever more clear that Thucydides is the greatest historian not only of empire but also of contemporary politics.
In a letter to his college girlfriend, Barack Obama writes with strikingly suggestive insight into Eliot’s literary and religious tradition and his special relation to it. Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone.
When I work in Word, for all its dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.