A Reader’s Guide to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

Tim Parks

Honoré Daumier: The First Class Carriage, 1864

Even if some novels feel like supersonic flights and others like leisurely tours, there’s no doubt in my mind that the means of transport closest to the experience of written narrative is the train. On the plane, you are merely trapped in your seat and too distant from the land to have much experience of it. Aboard a steamer, you’re isolated in the monotony of the ocean. On a bus, you’re very much part of the traffic, in thrall to circumstance. 

‘The Jungle’: Putting the Refugee Crisis Center-Stage

Yasmine El Rashidi

Salar (Ben Turner) and Norullah (Khaled Zahabi) in The Jungle

Tellingly, some of the actors had to earn exceptions (by way of petitions) to the Trump administration’s “Muslim travel ban” in order to enter the United States to perform. That is a clue to the resonance the play has wherever it tours. The nationalities and geography depicted have come far from their original setting, in the camp at Calais, but the stories The Jungle tells are everywhere the same.

Shostakovich, My Grandfather, and the Chimes of Novorossiysk

Anastasia Edel

Dmitri Shostakovich with Anatoly Alexandrov, the author’s grandfather, Novorossiysk, Russia, 1961

Once, my grandfather telephoned Shostakovich to say he was in Moscow, with two bottles of Novorossiysk’s famous Abrau-Durso champagne and—no less famous, though in narrower circles—some salted bream. “Why are you sitting there all alone?” Shostakovich demanded. “Haul them over!” The composer and the mayor demolished the meltingly oily fish in Shostakovich’s kitchen, washing it down, blasphemously, with champagne. He and Grandfather used to play film-score music four-handed, a homage to their youth, when both earned extra rubles by playing accompaniment to silent movies. While Shostakovich played, the nervous tics that habitually plagued his features disappeared. He seemed almost happy. And so I grew up with a sense of tantalizing proximity to genius and history and to the men who made it—one with music, another with the monument that enshrined it.

The Sly Modernity of Édouard Laboulaye’s Fairy Tales

James Guida

Illustration by Yan’ Dargent for

Smack-Bam, or the Art of Governing Men collects sixteen tales by Édouard Laboulaye, a French law professor and jurist of the Second Empire, and an activist for abolition and women’s rights. Laboulaye’s creative work has been eclipsed by his political career, but in his day he was recognized as a writer of fiction, too, and especially known for his fairy tales—with their satirical asides, irreverent humor, and free use of international sources, it is not hard to see why. 

Report from Rojava: What the West Owes its Best Ally Against ISIS

Debbie Bookchin

A member of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces flashing a victory sign next an SDF flag after the conquest of the Islamic State’s final stronghold of Baghouz, in Deir al-Zour province, Eastern Syria, March 24, 2019

Neighboring Iraq has become an object lesson in how territorial reconquest can provide a false sense of security. Since “victory” was declared in December 2017, ISIS sleeper cells have launched hundreds of attacks: assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings—some in towns and districts never held by the group. The fate of these ISIS fighters and their families is a grave challenge facing the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). It’s time for the Western powers of the Coalition to repay their debt to their SDF allies in the fight against ISIS by recognizing the NES diplomatically.

What Koestler Knew About Jokes

Liesl Schillinger

Arthur Koestler, 1947

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Arthur Koestler, as politics, which is to say, this presidency, has turned a spotlight, a searchlight even, on humor and on humorists. Humor is not innocent, Koestler knew; its roots lie in “aggression and apprehension.” Aristotle thought laughter was linked to “ugliness and debasement”; Descartes that it “was a manifestation of joy mixed with surprise or hatred.” It was not surprising given the insult implicit in laughter, Koestler suggests, that powerful men would seek to thwart those who inspired others to laugh at their expense. “Under the tyrannies of Hitler in Germany and of Stalin in the Soviet Union, humour was driven underground,” he writes. “Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”

Are the Humanities History?

Michael Massing

Johann Moreelse: The Young Poet (Youth Transcribing Homer), circa 1630

On all fronts, fields like history and English, philosophy and classical studies, art history and comparative literature are under siege. Almost all disciplines have been affected, but none more so than history. The number of history majors nationwide fell from 34,642 in 2008 to 24,266 in 2017. Languages and literature courses have been hit, too: between 2013 and 2016, US colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Defenders of the humanities generally emphasize what the field can do for the individual: they promote self-discovery, breed good citizens, and teach critical thinking. No doubt the humanities do broaden the mind and deepen the soul. But to dismiss their practical worth seems both short-sighted and self-defeating.

The Equivocal Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Kate Bolick

Gilman addressing members of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, June 4, 1916

By the time she died, in 1935, all her books were out of print, and early posthumous efforts to keep her reputation alive foundered. It was not until the 1970s, amid the renewed interest of second-wave feminists, that scholars rediscovered this forgotten writer. Yet their initial rush of excitement in doing so was often replaced, as her writings on race came to light, with a sense of confusion and disappointment. How could it be that this progressive feminist activist followed such an injurious line of thinking? 

Graciela Iturbide, Visionary Ethnographer

Christopher Alessandrini

Graciela Iturbide: Baile (Dance), Juchitán, México, 1986

According to Iturbide, there are—pace Cartier-Bresson—two “decisive moments” in photography: “One, when you take the photo; and two, when you discover it in the contact sheet, because you often think you took one photo, and another comes out.” But perhaps there is a third decisive moment in Iturbide’s photography, the moment a relationship begins. When Iturbide first spotted Díaz at the Juchitán market, in her halo of iguanas, she asked to take her picture. In Our Lady of the Iguanas (1979), Díaz is vaulted from the market’s everyday bustle into the realm of myth. 

One Year of Gaza Protests. A New Era of Palestinian Struggle?

Tareq Baconi

A Palestinian waving flags as tear gas disperses from canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest near Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, March 22, 2019

The experience of Gazans over the past fifty-two weeks has been another grim reminder of how easily popular mobilization is crushed and how staggering the cost can be, with lethal force unleashed on Palestinian civilian demonstrators. What thus started as a social movement with genuine grassroots support in Gaza, the Great March of Return, one year later risks being subsumed into the nihilistic closed-loop system of episodic belligerence that characterizes relations between Israel and Hamas. Yet the rightward trajectory of Israel’s politics and the growing consensus behind Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank are unwittingly beginning to transform Palestinians, formerly fragmented into territorial and political silos, into a single collective entity facing different aspects of the same oppressive power: an Israeli state that discriminates in favor of Jews over Palestinians across the entire land.