Required Reading

There’s a bit of a war over book reviews brewing in the New York media scene. First, the editors of n+1 (mostly a bastion for people from certain US colleges who socialize together) offers this take on the problem with book reviews:

UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE READER, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig. The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book  —  or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.

And this response from Christian Lorentzen of Gawker (which is, I guess, is back):

The implied argument is that literary criticism, like much media discourse, has fallen prey to culture war. That’s why n+1 asserts that the conclusions reached in CTRs are “completely obvious” and “never not obvious.” This repetitive point about obviousness would be more convincing if n+1 either named names or at least made their actual targets more easily recognizable in their Luxner piece parody. But as far as I can tell, there aren’t any pieces out there that discuss both Ben Lerner and Christopher Lasch (I Googled it). His presence here seems to be dog whistle to associate n+1’s unnamed targets with other unsavory millennial media figures who like to talk about Lasch. How pointlessly coy!

Can the cultural capital of Afghanistan, Herat, survive the Taliban again? In Prospect Magazine CPW Gammell writes:

One of the most remarkable stories about Afghanistan’s resistance to Taliban nihilism occurred in Herat. The Taliban not only banned education for young girls and women, but also circumscribed the curriculum for those men allowed to learn. Herat’s library was stripped of all its books aside from those relating to Islam; these books were carried away to be burned (although in reality many were sold by the Taliban to raise money). The Taliban’s restrictions effectively imprisoned thousands of young girls and women. By way of resisting, a group of girls under the guidance of Naser Rahiab, a generous and charming Herati intellectual, began to organise clandestine literature classes. Rahiab ran these under the guise of sewing circles, one of the few activities which the Taliban had not proscribed. A young boy would stand guard outside the house, ready to alert the students should the Taliban pay them a visit. The penalty for being caught reading Rumi or Nabokov, Saadi or Shakespeare could easily have been death. They risked their lives for a literary education, and some of these girls went on to become leading Herati poets, strong voices for a generation’s frustrated hopes.

Jillian Steinhauer looks at Alice Neel’s “populist paintings” for the Nation:

Neel faced an impossible choice that has haunted countless creative women: pursue her art or subsume it to the burdens of parenting. She chose her work, at great emotional cost. In August 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized in Philadelphia and briefly released, only to attempt suicide at her parents’ house. Back in the hospital, Neel continued her attempts until a social worker gave her a sketch pad. “It was the drawing that helped me decide to get well,” she said later. She was transferred to a private sanitarium to recover. Her haunting 1931 drawing Suicidal Ward depicts a smiling male doctor in a room full of beds and delirious female patients. It recalls her 1928–29 painting Well Baby Clinic, which features a handful of almost angelic-looking medical staff tending to a ward of new mothers who appear largely possessed — an indication of how clearly Neel understood the patriarchal nature of such institutions.

The Smithsonian has acquired a cache of photographs from prominent 19th-century African-American photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington, turning the collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum into the largest depository of such work. In the New York Times, Aruna D’Souza reports:

The group of 286 objects, dating from the 1840s to the mid-1920s, includes a cache of 40 daguerreotypes made by three of the most prominent Black photographers of the 19th century, James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington, making SAAM’s the largest collection of such work in the country, and surpassing the 26 daguerreotypes by these photographers at the Library of Congress, the museum said.

Included in the purchase is an extensive collection of photographic jewelry — intimate objects that were made to be worn on the body, embedded with tiny daguerreotypes or other types of photographs, perhaps along with locks of hair. West calls the group made by and for African Americans “the rarest of the rare.” 

Rounding out the acquisition are portraits of abolitionists and photographs related to the Underground Railroad, with special attention to the women — both Black and white — who worked to raise money for the operation.

Writing for the New Left Review, Dustin Illingworth includes this fascinating details about Uruguayan author Mario Levrero:

After a brief stint in the Uruguayan Communist Party — he once ate chorizo poisoned by fascists during a march in support of Cuba – he remained staunchly apolitical in later life. 

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who runs the Ethicist column at the New York Times, replies to a question about cultural appropriation. I have to say it seems to miss the mark, and his understanding of how “spirit animals” is used is a little weird IMO, but it’s an interesting response nonetheless:

But then the very concept of “cultural appropriation” is misbegotten. As I’ve previously argued, it wrongly casts cultural practices as something like corporate intellectual property, an issue of ownership. Where there’s a real cause for offense, it usually involves not a property crime but something else: disrespect for other peoples. Now, whatever the source of your ideas, you were using them reverently as a form of therapy. For you, I suspect, nothing could be more respectful than that.

The effort to draw and police boundaries around our cultural practices is, in the end, a mug’s game. I’m reminded of the basketball player Jeremy Lin’s response, a few years ago, when a Black N.B.A. elder reproached him for wearing locs. Lin slyly defended his dissed dreads by explaining that they — just like the other man’s Chinese tattoos — should be viewed not as cultural appropriation but as cultural appreciation.

A teacher in Blountville, Tennessee, taught an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates and was soon fired. Writing for the Atlantic, Emma Green reports:

Green: When you introduce something like Ta-Nehisi’s “First White President” article, is your goal to convince students to see the way in which white-identity politics shaped the Trump presidency?

Hawn: No. I don’t try to persuade my students at all. I just want them to be able to understand and develop those critical-thinking skills that they can take out into the world whenever they leave high school. I’ve taught this class for a little over a decade. I’ve never graded a student based on their attachment to an idea that we discuss in class. That’s not what I’m looking for. My goal as a teacher is to have them be able to evaluate a claim, think critically about it, and then articulate how they feel about that claim.

Green: One complaint leveled against you by a parent was that you exposed students to materials that use foul language. Do you think parents should have some say over the kind of language that their high schoolers are being exposed to in the classroom?

Hawn: We want our parents’ input. It is a public school. With more parent involvement in a child’s education, the child performs better.

Green: Do you think that it’s legit for a parent to say that any material that includes a curse word or a racial slur should, by definition, not be taught in a high-school classroom?

Hawn: That’s their right. With the video, I tried to introduce a very powerful piece of art, just like To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted our students to hear what she had to say and what claims she was making. And actually, one of my standards is to evaluate the tone and language the author uses and whether it obscures their point.

Good to remember:

Understand “reward prediction error” & you will never reply to a negative comment again. Negative comments open a dopamine anticipation loop (in the commenter). Respond and the circuit closes; they get rewarded. Don’t respond & their dopamine will eventually drop below baseline.

— Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D. (@hubermanlab) August 6, 2021

Hilarious:

HAHAHAHAHA:

Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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