Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.
Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.
My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.
So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.
Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.
He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.
For me – and probably only me – Popper, Niebuhr, and Baldwin address the same issue, Popper and Niebuhr more philosophically and Baldwin more personally. Popper asks, how can we build a society around universal values instead of around tribal prejudices? Baldwin returns in successive books to chew on a similar bone: how can we – particularly we white Americans – free ourselves of our false identities and thereby understand “the life, the aspirations, the universal humanity hidden behind the dark skin”? Because the full acceptance of black Americans, which cannot be done without whites being stripped of their false notions of themselves as well as of blacks, is a big and necessary step to the realization of the American society’s promise.
Popper, like any philosopher, thinks we can, as a culture, slowly reason our way out of our false sense of ourselves (and Popper writes about our false identities) and improve our governments. Baldwin, however, thinks “the writer, not the statesman, is our strongest arm.” His fiction and his essays invariably return to his own general formula, summarized in another book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name:
American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. This is a rich confusion, indeed, and it creates for the American writer unprecedented opportunities.
Niebuhr deals with a problem similar to the ones Popper and Baldwin face, but his suggestions combine the philosophical and the mystical. In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr insists on a personal tension – an escape from the easy path of accepting only a collective identity – by asking his readers to simply accept on faith his basic premise, what he calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness.” Niebuhr, in his insistence on essential identity as well as his acknowledgement that the identity is ultimately not available by proof, follows the same path as John Locke. On the other hand, Macbeth, I saw this year, is the story of a political regime based on driving its citizens away from their true selves.
For Baldwin, the tearing away of a false identity exposes the abyss of one’s own soul. This experience is the only path to brotherhood and love, and this brotherhood and love constitute the path to equality and a better society.
In other words, Baldwin’s writings move back and forth from the naked soul to social change. That’s how my thinking’s been, too. For both of us, a person’s shaken identity is the best hope for equality, and equality is the only foundation for a just society.
Until today, my favorite expression of how the stripping of one’s infantile identity gives one the capacity to love comes from Thomas Merton’s book of essays, No Man Is an Island:
If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!
But I read the end of The Devil Finds Work today and found that Baldwin says the same thing better:
To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other . . .
Neither Merton nor Baldwin claims that an identity crisis of sorts makes a person into a saint. On the contrary, it allows a person to more easily see how easy it is to slip back – and how little excuse she has for slipping back – into a self-serving identity. Baldwin (later on the same page):
For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.
My post last week about my encounters on the evening we saw The Tempest is such a moment when no other human being is real for me, nor am I real for myself. I’m beginning to see the devil, too.
Happy new year. May the words of your books this coming year be “as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies,” as the Preacher puts it.
I’ve listed the books I’ve read this year in alphabetical order below by the author’s last name. If I’ve written about a title, I’ve linked the title to that writing.
Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
Anderson, Nancy E. and Charles Brock. Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In
Austen, Jane. Emma (second read)
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (third read)
Baldwin, James. Another Country
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street
Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son
Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time
Berger, John. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (second read)
Brill, Stephanie and Rachel Pepper: The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals
Cahoone, Lawrence. The Modern Intellectual Tradition from Descartes to Derrida (Great Courses)
Callan, Jamie Cat. The Writer’s Toolbox
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy
Cole, Teju. Every Day Is for the Thief
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (third read)
Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground
Doyle, A. Conan. The Sign of Four (third read)
Eliot, T. S. Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying (second read)
Faulkner, William. Knight’s Gambit: Six Mystery Stories
Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished (second read)
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
Fischer, David Hackett. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement
Fitzgerald, F Scott. The Great Gatsby (third read)
Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops To Conquer (two reads)
Goldstein, Dana. The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan
Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (second read)
Joyce, James. Ulysses
Kaplan, Fred. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary
Kramer, Lloyd. European Thought and culture in the 19th Century (Great Courses)
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera
Merton, Thomas. Contemplative Prayer (two reads)
Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Contemplation (third read)
Morris, Edmund. Colonel Roosevelt
Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History (two reads)
Norris, Marc. The Norman Conquest
Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies
Russo, Richard. Elsewhere
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (third through seventh reads)
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (second and third reads)
Sophocles. Antigone (second read)
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (third read)
Sterne, Lawrence. Tristram Shandy (second read)
Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why
Williams, John. Stoner