James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists 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

Newkirk, Thomas. The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers

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


  1. Peter, I bow to you for you the depth and focus you’ve brought to your reading this year, diving into THE topic of importance, not only in America today but for each of us. Thank you for reading and writing so seriously about this interplay between building a fair society and encountering our own depths, between the spiritual and concretely autobiographical. I confess that I’ve only touched on Baldwin in my own reading, and never read any Popper either; on those subjects I was reading only Adichie and Maya Angelou. Merton and your Shakespeares, yes. Marquez, yes. Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, but not all of these Faulkners. Several of your other classics, yes. And I see you’ve marked Ulysses as completed! It’s such an eclectic and interesting list, but for me, your focus is a gaping hole that I need to address in the future. Thank you for this.

  2. Beth, I’ve read your description of how you experienced Adichie’s book, and it sounds like mine reading Baldwin, particularly the one I mentioned in a comment today on your site. I always thought, for instance, that “In the Heat of the Night” showed how much progress we’ve made on race. Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work showed me what is really going on in that movie. And I might read Adichie’s book soon. I haven’t really read anything by Maya Angelou yet. Speaking of gaping holes — I think mine may never be filled.

    My reading of Ulysses was mostly through the unabridged recording. What stunned me was Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end performed by Marcella Riordan. It’s a top-notch performance, maybe better than Jim Norton’s of the rest of the novel. (And in case I’ve tempted anyone out there, I’ll point out that Audible has the recording on sale now for $3.99 — http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Ulysses-Audiobook/B002V8L4X6/ref=a_search_c4_1_1_srImg?qid=1419905792&sr=1-1 )

    I’ve been so absent around here. It does seem like writing about what one has been reading is a very quick way to catch up.

    Thanks again, Beth. Happy new year.

  3. Beautiful meditations on reading Baldwin. He is quickly becoming my touchstone writer. This year I read Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country (my favorite Baldwin, and one of my favorite books, period). Baldwin needs to be read and reread and reread. I am astonished by the fierceness and beauty of his prose. Right now I’m slowly making my way through Notes of a Native Son. And rereading The Fire Next Time is next.

  4. When I finished Another Country, I realized that, at least for me, I had just read the Great American Novel. I liked it better than Ellison’s Invisible Man, my second-favorite American novel, even though Invisible Man is probably the better novel. There’s something about Baldwin that makes him so present in his writing. I’m reading some of his uncollected essays now.

    Thanks for your kind comments and for stopping by, Lisa.

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