What does the NAS staff read in their spare time? All sorts of books. The sort of person who ends up working for a higher education policy institute is likely to be a bookworm. Read down, gentle reader, and you’ll find our back-to-school essays: “What I Read For My Summer Vacation.”
Partly this is so NAS members and other readers of the website can get a better sense of who the NAS staff are and what we do for fun when we’re off the clock.
Partly this is us saying,“A college education ought to make you interested in reading good books for fun, and here’s how we do it.”
And most importantly, we’ve been enjoying these books, and we wanted to share them. We hope you’ll take a look at some of them!
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (5th cent. BC)
I read this work in my slow-but-sure quest to study all of the great books I was supposed to read in college (but didn’t for various reasons—mainly, my priorities were out of whack). Thucydides provides an astonishingly detailed account of the causes and events of the Peloponnesian War, the epic conflict between Athens and Sparta that, in his view, far surpassed the previous Trojan and Persian wars in importance. He does so as a scientific historian, choosing to explain events naturalistically rather than appealing to divine intervention as does his predecessor, Herodotus. As a non-classicist, it was quite challenging for me to juggle all of the names of people and places that Thucydides uses, so while some of the descriptions of battle are a slog, I was most taken by the speeches Thucydides records. These contain some remarkably relevant commentary on politics, anthropology, and ethics. Take, for instance, this excerpt describing what happens to language during social upheaval:
To fit with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. (3.82)
Sound familiar? I certainly think so. There are many more passages in History of the Peloponnesian War that show the present plight of American academia is much older than critical race theory, 1960s activism, or the French Revolution. For more, check out my recent article on Minding the Campus.
Text Mining with R: This book by Julia Silge and David Robinson teaches readers how to obtain data from text sources such as newspapers, blogs, books, and so forth. I’ve wanted to become more fluent in this skill because this kind of data can tell us a lot about the focus of research/news that may not be immediately apparent.
It is a book I have been, and will be, grappling with for some time. The first read is to understand the general ideas and goals of the algorithms. Subsequent readings are about applying the code and concepts when working with actual data.
The Veldt: Over the summer, I was introduced to a Deadmau5 (pronounced Deadmouse) song called “The Veldt.” I didn’t understand the reference until I found that it was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story which goes by the same name. I liked Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, so I was intrigued to read this short story.
This story is about a family who suddenly becomes concerned about their children’s obsession with a virtual reality (VR) nursery room. This family lives in what I would describe as a smart home, where machines fulfill everyday tasks such as cooking and cleaning. The VR nursery is an entertainment room where it can reproduce anything the children imagine. In this case, the children often escape to the African countryside.
Bradbury depicts a more negative outlook on technological advancement. His story serves as a warning on the dangers of the over reliance on technology. It is also about parental negligence, where adults depend on external factors to care for their children. Children, as a result, respect their parents less as they become more dependent on the devices that care for them.
Since this story was written in the 1950s, I was impressed that Bradbury essentially predicted the future. The average home may not have VR rooms (yet), but smartphones and iPads serve similar functions when parents give them to children without much thought.
I often think about whether there will be a point where technological advancements will go too far and backfire on our society (or maybe that’s already happened). And then I wonder if that means completely stopping advancements or simply learning how to live with the consequences.
I’ve recently begun Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War. When it was published, it was the first major history of the war to come out in roughly seven decades, and it incorporated a number of previously untapped sources—most significantly, details from interviews and the personal papers of the Boers and the South Africans, including much translated from Afrikaans into English for the first time. It also includes details from the diaries of Sir Redvers Buller, who has gone down in history “as the symbol of all that was fatuous in the late-Victorian British army,” but who Pakenham shows to be far more competent, or at least far less responsible for the incompetence on the British side than was previously believed. It is a sprawling work that delves deeply into the political motivations of the actions on all sides: the Dutch-descended Boers with their fierce independence and desire for both autonomy and the ability to deal with the natives as they saw fit; the black South Africans who feuded with the Boers over land and resources and who found themselves and their interests continually sacrificed by British governors intent on preserving the tenuous loyalty of the Boers; and the British, whose motives were as numerous as they are complex, with Arthur Milner, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred Beit rising to the forefront of the narrative.
I am reading Mary Sarah Bilder’s Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution (2022), which does something politically incorrect these days: celebrates the US Constitution. Bilder traces the rise of a radical new idea in the late eighteenth century English-speaking world—female genius—by means of this biography of English-born Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor. Harriot delivered a University of Pennsylvania lecture attended by George Washington as he and other Constitutional Convention delegates gathered in Philadelphia. Bilder argues that Harriot’s performance likely inspired the gender-neutral language of the Constitution.
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1846): While the 19th century French work is a classic on its own, it is as much a tale of survival and the importance of education amid political upheaval as it is a story about revenge. The character of Edmond Dantes has his life upended due to being framed for political crimes by conspirators jealous of his success. Easily framed by the conspirators in an unstable France immediately after Napoleon’s rule, Dantes is imprisoned and driven nearly to suicide due to isolation and despair before encountering Abbe Faria, another political prisoner who is also a scholar and priest. Faria educates Dantes over the course of the following years, effectively saving him from despair and empowering him to ultimately escape and survive. In today’s era of deliberate censorship, political witch hunts, and encroaching totalitarianism both on and off campus, the tale is as relevant as ever. The way out of growing totalitarianism is instilling a sense of grit, wisdom, and knowledge that cannot be repressed. For those who self-censor on campus and in society in today’s America, for those locked in their own Chateau d’If of today’s culture, Dumas offers a glimpse of the power of education.
Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: The Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020): Larson’s book covers Churchill’s life during the blitz of London during WWII, and offers a look at the makings of internal fortitude. The book is nothing less than a closeup of Churchill and his inner circle during a period of intense personal and external stress. It is tempting to look back on WWII with nostalgia; however, it is worth remembering that no one knew what outcome would transpire at the time. The book offers a clinic of sorts on how to muster internal strength and courage in the face of likely annihilation. In today’s period of increased risk of nuclear war, pandemic, social breakdown, and growing authoritarianism, the book is a realistic reminder that endurance is possible when it is intentionally conjured.
Nicholas Eftimiades, Chinese Intelligence Operations (1994): This older book is nonetheless a worthwhile read in understanding how China, particularly in the early post-Cold War era, built its intelligence apparatus as a means of advancing its national interests and conducting political and economic statecraft. Current tensions with China, and Beijing’s influence operations in the United States and elsewhere, make the book a necessary read to better understand today’s threats coming from the Chinese Communist Party.
Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (originally published 1930): Albert Schweitzer, a theologian as well as a medical doctor and musical scholar, approaches the work of Saint Paul as fundamentally mystical as opposed to doctrinal. Schweitzer examines Paul’s work as a revolution in understanding how the human being encounters Divinity, in that encountering God does not lead to the dissolving of the self into an impersonal “All,” but instead leads to a transformation and retention of the self in relation to the eternal. For an increasingly secular and nihilistic society today, Schweitzer’s work offers a needed view for those pondering the deepest question of human existence: How can human beings relate to God?
Baltasar Gracián, Oracle of Worldly Wisdom (1648), in the 1992 Christopher Maurer translation
Three hundred short maxims of aphoristic advice, a paragraph apiece, which took me months to finish. Knotty prose, advice on how to succeed in this fallen world fit for Spain’s cutthroat, Machiavellian Baroque court—or for life in general. But perhaps with hidden advice for virtue? Gracián, for whom the phrase a subtle Jesuit is bespoke, may ultimately advise his worldly audience that you do well by doing good.
For how he writes, see #279:
Don’t answer those who contradict you. Find out first whether they’re being clever or simply vulgar. It isn’t always stubbornness; sometimes it is a trick. So pay attention and don’t get caught up in the former or cast down by the latter. No one demands more caution than a spy, and when someone has the skeleton key to minds, counter him by leaving the key of caution inside, on the other side of the keyhole.
This is advice well worth considering as an NAS staff member—as is much of Gracián.
Of course, a certain number of Gracián’s pieces of advice are contradictory; the trick, claro, is to know the proper occasion to apply the proper maxim.
I haven’t quite dared read Gracián in the original. A Spanish prof who taught Golden Age lit once told me he never taught Gracián, because he was too difficult for grad students. I originally looked at this for my academic research on the history of the concept of prudence, but then I thought, I should just read this! With an eye to reading more aphoristic wisdom literature—La Rochefoucauld the most obvious one to follow, since he read Gracián. I have Marcus Aurelius on my nightstand; I think he will be less cynical!
But for the moment, I will keep Gracián’s prudent advice in mind as the NAS steers through the storms besetting education policy.
Herman Melville, White Jacket (1850)
Melville, semi-autiobiographically, on life aboard an American man-of-war in the 1840s. He is wonderful sentence by sentence, riffs into these wonderful imagistic comparisons—the entire last chapter, say:
As a man-of-war that sails through the sea, so this earth that sails through the air. We mortals are all on board a fast-sailing, never-sinking world-frigate, of which God was the shipwright; and she is but one craft in a Milky-Way fleet, of which God is the Lord High Admiral. The port we sail from is for ever astern. And though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders, and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers; yet our final haven was predestinated ere we slipped from the stocks at Creation.
Maybe Melville is a sermonizer rather than a novelist?
The joy is not just the sentences and the images, but all this stuff Melville knows!—from conversance with the classics to an impressive reading in naval history and literature. I think he vaunts it a bit—yes, I shipped as a sailor, but me literate. But he vaunts it well. And it is lovely, learning everything an intelligent, naval-inclined autodidact picked up in the 1840s! Lotsa stuff I don’t know, oh decadent age I live in. Such as that Alexander had his soldiers shave their beards, so the Persians wouldn’t catch hold of them in battle. I’d missed that, in all my reading.
From dim memory: White Jacket’s the same style as Moby Dick, but the latter was a more cohesive literary whole. Since White Jacket is semi-autobiographical, Melville’s a bit constrained to fit what actually happened. I felt it sputtered out some 3/4 of the way through, that the last quarter was, oh, yes, there’s this about life on a man of war too. So that lack of cohesion in White Jacket is why Moby Dick gets the palm. But second-rate Melville is still quite good.
The lesson is that, as one reads through the canon, the non-marquee books by Great Writers are also worth reading.
Herman Charles Bosman, The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories (1930–1951)
I was curious to read classic Afrikaner fiction, to read how the Afrikaners rendered themselves—and found there isn’t much translated into English. The easiest window was these stories, written by an Afrikaner Joseph Conrad in English.
These short stories are really good. They’re a whole series of vignettes of rural Afrikaner life, set from maybe the 1880s to maybe the 1920s. The narrator, Oom [Uncle] Schalk Lourens, is a little hazy. Bosman wrote the stories over the course of a generation, and it’s always as if a middle aged or old man is telling the stories—but he’s always about the same age, and his backstory isn’t entirely consistent. An early story mentions his wife and kids suffering and dying in the Boer War, but mostly Lourens seems a single man, occasionally sweet on a girl.
Bosman’s stories include a lot of deadpan, self-deprecating humor—farmer humor, though it’s not quite a flavor I’ve read before.
Accordingly, it was easy for me to acquaint Lettie with what had happened the night before, on the krantz, in the moonlight. At least, I only told her the parts that mattered to her, such as the way I explained to Gideon where the juba-plant grew. Another man might have wearied her with a long and unnecessary description of the way he fell down the krantz, clutching at branches and tree-roots. But I am different. I told her that it was Gideon who fell down the krantz.
A lot of pretty girls, some of whom hate their husbands and/or long for unattainable lovers, but seen from the outside rather than the inside. Lots of romance stories, mixed in with a lot of Boer War stories. Blacks at first treated almost entirely as anonymous, treated brutally; some creeping individuation of blacks as the stories progress, a greater interest in them—but then, Bosman also begins to mention stuff such as Boer turncoats who fought for the English during the Boer War, something I’d forgotten about if I ever knew it. I think the emotional weight of that getting mentioned is important. It’s as if there’d been a guerrilla war in the South after 1865, and some part of the Confederate army had joined up with the Union troops to put an end to the resistance before the South was totally destroyed. The Afrikaner hatred of these turncoats was intense, and Bosman didn’t even allude to them until the late stories (around 1950).
Bosman gives just an extraordinary amount of detail about the Boer way of life—the chairs they sit in, the peach brandy they drink, the role of the Indian stores in small towns, cattle smuggling, the roles of teachers and preachers in small-town life, etc.
I wanted an ultimately sociological benefit, a glimpse of Afrikaner life from the inside. I didn’t expect to find out just how well written they are. I don’t quite know how to peg Bosman in the sense of here’s how I rank him among the short story writers in English, and in world literature. His stories are crisp and a delight to read, featuring a great deal of fine observation of character, geography, and society. He doesn’t ever try to write a Joyce or a Chekhov short story, so there’s some literary registers Bosman doesn’t express. But seriocomic miniatures are achievements enough, no? He’s a good enough writer that he ought to have a reputation just as a stylist, not merely for sociological interest.
The lesson: there’s all sorts of lovely, unexpected discoveries to find as you meander through world literature.
Along semi-professional lines as a political science instructor, I’ve read the following two titles, although I recommend them in any case:
1) Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin, by British historian and Russian expert Robert Service. Good discussion of Russia’s internal developments and foreign policies since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, up to 2019. The Russian invasion of Ukraine would not surprise the author.
2) Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, by Ahmad Rashid. Although published in 2002, the book offers a good historical background to the development and growth of jihadists, especially in predominantly Islamic former Soviet republics.
For my vacation reading, as always, I re-read Plato’s Republic, as I have done for the past fifteen years. Like the Bible, this is another book from which one always learns and which one cannot read too many times. I’ve always preferred Benjamin Jowett’s rendering of the Greek text, notwithstanding carping by disciples of Leo Strauss and the “literal” translations they advocate.
I also took to the seashore with me Thomas Nagel’s slim—but intellectually heavy—2012 book, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong. It’s safe to guess from the title that this book raised hell when it was published and got the author tagged as a “fundamentalist.” That’s comical, since Nagel is a secular Jew and lifelong atheist who, as far as he is aware, has never had the faintest nano-moment of religious inclination in his entire life. Obviously, he sorely exercised devoted Darwinians who cling to Origin of Species as a silver-bullet God killer but, as he notes in his introduction, the purpose of science is to explain natural phenomena, not “to liberate us from religion.”
Next on my immediate list is The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950, by retired UC Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay. The book is not widely known, although it received a good review in Commentary when it first appeared in 1973. It offers an extensive dive into the intellectual formation of such Institut luminaries as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Karl Wittfogel, and, especially of note, Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual force behind the New Left and teacher of such radicals as Angela Davis. If you want an answer to the question of how we got to the current state of the academy and society, this book will open a few windows, I expect.
For the long term, I am also reading the Chronicles, by late medieval historian and cleric Jean Froissart, whose exact birthplace is unknown, although he is assumed to come from what is now Belgium in the then-Holy Roman Empire and wrote in French and Latin. Froissart traveled widely, gathering first-hand materials for his historical writing, visiting England, where he resided for a number of years as court historian, as well as Spain, Scotland, Wales, and France. He was apparently also personally acquainted with Petrarch and Chaucer. The massive two volumes that comprise the Chronicles are apparently regarded as important source material for viewing the Hundred Years’ War, which the author witnessed directly. I’ll be at this for a while, but the Victorian era translation is quite readable, and the author’s descriptions are compelling.
Two books by an anthropologist, Richard Gordon, born in Namibia, but now at the University of Vermont:
Robert J. Gordon and Stuart Sholto Douglass, The Bushman Myth. The Making of a Namibian Underclass (2000)
Robert J. Gordon, South Africa’s Dreams. Ethnologists and Apartheid in Namibia (2021)
Gordon speaks with an interesting voice about the current DEI mania of ‘decolonizing science.’ In Namibia, the San (Bushmen) have long been the playthings of trends in anthropology, with the consequence that these people have been consistently marginalized by the various generations of colonists that have built Namibia: first the Bantu colonists, then the Germans, South Africans, and a restoration of the current Bantu colonial regime. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but it does shift the decolonization narrative in a critical way.
Richard Reeves, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 25th Anniversary edition (2012)
Aside from the marvelous technical detail, Reeves paints a marvelous picture of science as it was done prior to the advent of Big Science in the aftermath of World War II. We are getting far less than our money’s worth for having turned the sciences into a welfare client of the federal government.
Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstitions. The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1998)
An interesting, poignant, and a bit annoying take on the culture war over the sciences. Interesting, because it underscores that we have been in this battle for many decades now. Poignant, because of its faith (now shattered to pieces) that all will come right in the end. Annoying, because it is permeated with an arrogant scientism that is part of the reason the sciences are losing the culture war.
Loren Graham, Lysenko’s Ghost. Epigenetics and Russia (2016)
I’ve long thought the critique of T. D. Lysenko was misguided. Commonly, Lysenko is held up as a dangerous opponent of Darwinism, which then turns into a critique of Darwinism’s major challenger, Lamarckism (to which I subscribe). The Lamarckian idea is getting new life breathed into it by advances in epigenetic theory and its implications for the nature of heredity. The real danger that Lysenko posed was not his advocacy of Lamarckian ideas, but his binding science too closely to political authority—something we’ve been doing in this country for several decades now.
I often pick books in anticipation of how well they can be adapted to the fundraising letters I send out each month. Those letters usually open with an arresting quotation from some literary character, but they proceed to weave together mentions of other books. I try to avoid going back to the same authors and periods, which results in my chasing a lot of authors with whom I have no prior experience. That’s not always the case. In the last year, I drew on two of Anthony Trollope’s enormously long novels: The Way We Live Now and Can You Forgive Her? The former is a story of the havoc created in the 1870s by a fraudulent entrepreneur, Augustus Melmotte, who cons England’s investor class with a scheme to build a railroad from Salt Lake City to Veracruz, Mexico. There is no such railroad, of course, but the political and financial elite are awed by Melmotte’s apparent wealth and expertise.
The Way We Live Now stands out for me for several reasons, not least that I read all one hundred chapters aloud with my wife. That allowed us to get to know the characters in a leisurely way, not unlike the Victorian practice of publishing such long novels a chapter at a time in popular magazines. Reading a book aloud with someone has other rewards as well. Jody and I read, among other things, Don Quixote this way, and Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire about his arduous NASA training culminating in his flight to the moon. We are currently reading The Brothers Karamazov. It is the second time through for me, but it seems like a different book. Perhaps that’s because the oral reading imposes a much slower pace and allows more room for reflection.
In the last month I have read all by myself Alice Munro’s Dear Life. Munro, a Canadian writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, and a galaxy of other prizes over her long career. Dear Life (2012) is a collection of short stories. Almost all of Munro’s fiction is in this form. This book, however, was my first venture into her work. I was put off, I suppose, by her reputation as a “women’s writer” who focuses on Canadian female characters who make very subtle transitions over the course of a story. That reputation certainly wasn’t undermined by the stories in Dear Life, or the three autobiographical accounts with which she rounds out this volume. That said, Munro’s mastery of convincing detail, her precise control of the English sentence, and the vivid interiority of her characters won me over.
Is there a connection to NAS? Well, my job is to discover such connections, and I have no doubt that I can recruit Munro as a compelling representative of Western civilization at work in the broken lives of people who might otherwise pass unnoticed.
The broken lives of the unnoticed also pertains to Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, a non-fiction work by a German forester who is eager to popularize the discoveries of researchers in the deep woods. Mostly these have to do with how trees communicate with one another. If you are thinking “pollen,” you aren’t wrong, but Mr. Wohlleben provides an astonishing account of other ways trees signal one another about insect attacks and other assaults; the role played by root fungi that connect whole forests into a sort of internet; and the ways in which trees fortify their territories against fire and drought.
Why should I read such a book? Partly because I manage my own small acreage in the Green Mountain National Forest, but mostly because I direct some of NAS’s vast (!) resources in opposition to the Green hysteria that has its roots (so to speak) on campus. Whatever wisdom Wohllenben has to offer is badly compromised by his fanatical belief in man-made catastrophic global warming. And I make it my business to keep up with this log-rolling among climate fanatics.
I have two other works of fiction to mention. In my endless search for important authors that are new to me, I came across Helen DeWitt, who is best known for her debut novel, The Last Samurai (2001), about a child prodigy raised in London by his single American mother. But I thought it would be wiser to start with a later and shorter work by DeWitt, so I took up Lightning Rods (2011) with no advanced knowledge of what it was about. My mistake. Lightning Rods was an earlier work by DeWitt that she was unable to publish until after the success of The Last Samurai. It is the tale of Joe, an American salesman who fails at selling Encylopedia Britannica door to door; fails again with selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners; then implausibly succeeds in selling prostitution to American companies that want to keep their highly-sexed salesmen and executives satiated on the job. Joe promotes his service as a way for companies to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits. The book is presented as a satire of American sales culture, but I’m not sure that’s exactly right. DeWitt certainly shows no affection for corporate culture or American tastes, but I’d describe it less as satire than as lubricious cynicism. Or to put it another way, every character seems soulless. Some of the prostitutes credit their experience as “lightning rods” with giving them a foundation for their future success, including one who ends up a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whether I can adapt this for one of my fundraising letters remains to be seen. I often include mentions of books that I think are unworthy but that illustrate some point. Expatriate DeWitt definitely illustrates something, even if it is only callow loathing of her home country.
At the moment I am in the middle of another novel by the Scottish writer James Kelman, winner of the Booker Prize and numerous other literary decorations. The book in hand is Dirt Road, which is about a sixteen-year-old Scottish boy visiting his American relatives in Alabama soon after the death by cancer of his mother. We see the American South through the eyes of young Murdo, who is no budding scholar. Murdo loves music and plays the accordion in a band back home in his coastal village, but he has absorbed little if anything from school and wanders in America as a perfectly naive observer. Kelman has written the book in a lilting Scots dialect closely following Murdo’s struggles, complaints, and exhilarations. Seeing America through a stranger’s eyes is always rewarding, and I’m sure I will be able to make use of Kelman’s venture.
Seeing the world through a stranger’s eyes is, of course, central to my discipline of anthropology. Keeping up with my field, however, has become drearily familiar. The journals and the academic books in anthropology today are crammed with declarations of piety to gods of progressivism and are generally bereft of any real attention to what peoples in other societies do, say, or think. The ethno- has evaporated from ethnography. But there are lingering exceptions. Marshall Sahlins was one of the lions of anthropology—he died last year at age 91—and Princeton has just brought out his last, posthumous book, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity. I read it with rapt attention, mostly because Sahlins took seriously the anthropologist’s obligation to pay attention to ethnography from around the world.
Sahlins’ argument in this book is in the form of macro-contrast between the West and “the rest.” But Sahlins never was any kind of advocate for the West. In a short book he published in 2008, he expressed his hope “to accelerate the trend” in American colleges of eliminating “Western Civ” courses. It would not be too much to say that he loathed Western civilization, and his last work is his final condemnation of the West. On what grounds? I will have to explain this in detail somewhere else, but his essential point is that Judaism and Christianity posit a transcendental God and that this division of the phenomenal world from “higher” powers is the bedrock of Western science and technology. By contrast, the rest of humanity (at least to the extent it has escaped Western indoctrination) recognizes the immanence of spiritual power in everything. There is no line between the natural and the supernatural, and nothing is transcendent. Humanity is merely part of the continuum of powers that unite the living and the dead and everything with the meta-human powers of the universe.
If this sounds like the ravings of an agnostic man in his final mortal days, that may well be so, but they are in a way brilliant ravings. The last chapter is an extended comparison of the beliefs of several branches of the Arctic Inuit with the beliefs of ancient Sumerians and Akkadians. There is no possible historical connection between the two, which makes the striking similarities of their cosmologies worth pondering. Sahlins’ explanation is that those similarities arise from the root condition of humanity before Western civilization came along to exile God to remotest heaven.
What to make of all this? I make of it that the National Association of Scholars offers limitless opportunities to write and think about the world we have co-inherited. And while Marshall Sahlins long struck me as an anthropologist who crawled way out on the limb of cultural relativism and then fell off into a nihilistic void, I have to pay homage to his spirit of tireless inquiry even as our mutual discipline collapsed into mindless conformity to political orthodoxy.
My summer read was the same as my winter read: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset (translated by Tiina Nunnally). For the first time that I can recall, I began a reread nearly as soon as I had finished my first read of the book. Perhaps that fact alone is enough of a recommendation—clocking in at over 1100 pages, the saga is so vast that simply reading through it in its entirety feels like a feat in itself, let alone reading it twice. But its length also means that the beginning of the story feels like a distant memory when you finally reach the end, and the thought of reading it again feels more inviting than daunting. (Lest my tone sound too self-congratulatory, my second read-through was prompted primarily by the opportunity to join an online reading group with the Catherine Project.)
Though written in the early 20th century, Kristin Lavransdatter takes place in 14th century Norway, following the titular character from her early childhood through her death of the bubonic plague around the age of 50. The first book in the trilogy feels at times like a cross-over between a late medieval epic and a modern-day soap opera (an NAS colleague who shall remain unnamed confessed being unable to get past Kristin’s early years for that reason). But the heart of the saga lies within Kristin’s long, troubled years as a wife to a noble but unreliable man and as a mother to seven boys who follow in their father’s footsteps. The entire trilogy serves as a study in the clash between duty and ambition, between conflicting conceptions of honor and virtue, and between pagan traditions and Christian faith—dilemmas that remain pressing today.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a story worth reading, pondering, and rereading. What more can you ask for in a book?