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BOOKS THAT MATTER / Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Arien Mack, Editor

This special issue is based on the conviction that words matter, books and ideas matter—and some books, special ones, deeply affect our lives and how we think and what we think about.To bring home this perhaps trivial truism, we invited writers whom we have long respected, all of whom have written for Social Research in the past, to write about a particular book that has mattered to them and to explain why. The books our authors chose to write about, not surprisingly, cover a wide array of subjects and writers, from Balzac and Adam Smith to A. S. Byatt and Thomas Hobbes.

The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon

An appraisal and appreciation of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, this essay argues that the book provides a valuable frame for understanding the vexed relationships between violence and liberation, nationalism and neocolonialism, and race and power even, and perhaps particularly, today.

“Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman's Song of Myself is one of the most original poems in the English language, and the evidence of an impulse utterly new in the American version of English. Its greatness comes from an idea of the self that is energetic, variable in its moods, and endlessly accessible to experience. The language of the poem—from declaration to catalogue to prayer—strives to afford a correlative to such personal qualities. The proof of its success comes with the sensations of reading and rereading the poem itself.

Lost Illusions, Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s novel of an initiation into Parisian journalism presciently dramatizes the creation of organs of fake news, and the destruction of principles of belief and authority that follows—all, as he sees it, an inevitable part of capitalist modernity and the coming of the cash nexus.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith

Much of what Adam Smith had to say about politics appears in The Wealth of Nations and Lectures on Jurisprudence. However, the psychological and political insights to be found in the first of Smith’s two great books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, remain highly relevant today. The pursuit of wealth and power, he argues, is driven not so much by the wish for possessions or authority as by the desire to be observed and admired. The great mass of people submit to the authority even of those unworthy of holding it, not for any material benefit, but from a non-rational fascination with wealth and grandeur.

The Qur’an

The Qur'an is the scripture of a quarter of the world's inhabitants, but remains little read outside of adherents. Modern engagements with it among writers in northern Europe and the Americas have been characterized by a discontinuous set of uses for it, often positioning it as a heterotopia. The book itself remains little explored except among specialist academics, but the history of meditations on it by prominent writers is one way into this crucial text.

Justice Is Conflict, Stuart Hampshire

In his short, lucid book Justice Is Conflict (1999), philosopher Stuart Hampshire argued that strife among alternative visions of the good is not only the natural state of society but also the precondition for rationality itself. Hampshire urges us to see the potential of the clash among rival visions of the good as an opportunity to hone judgment, test arguments, perhaps even change minds and stoke imaginations. What ails a rancorous society are not its divisions per se but the breakdown of the shared procedures to debate and adjudicate them and the erosion of shared intuitions of fairness that legitimate such procedures.

Ethics, Benedictus Spinoza

The audacity of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics starts with its title. With it, he announces his intention of reclaiming a project that had long been abandoned in Christian Europe, namely the securing of ethics on purely secular grounds. The work proved to be too radical to publish during his lifetime, but managed, in time, to have the influence his attackers had feared.

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, Albert Hirschman

Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy offers two sets of insights, designated roughly by the title and subtitle. Both are arresting, the subtitle because it seems so right and the title because history has proven it wrong, at least for now. Together they illuminate contemporary American politics. In Hirschman’s analysis, perversity, futility, and jeopardy are arguments that conservatives use to halt progressive reforms. But in American politics of the past few decades, the political valence of these three arguments is often reversed, so that liberals use arguments of perversity, futility, and jeopardy to try to halt conservative reforms.

Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss

Tristes Tropiques, written by Claude Lévi-Strauss in only five months at the end of 1954 and the beginning of 1955, was a landmark in the development of the human sciences. It develops in the unique form of a combination of autobiography, ethnographic travelogue, and theoretical treatise a vision of the moral role of anthropology within modern societies; moreover and even more importantly, it gives an ethical justification for why to apply structuralism as method for such an anthropology by arguing that this method best serves to overcome the arrogant self-centeredness and hubris of western modernity.

The Book of Jeremiah

Excerpt: Jeremiah stands for a radical change in what constitutes religious attitude. Morality is not an added ingredient to religion; it is its essence. He calls for a new religious consciousness based on morality, not on the cultic. Religion without morality is empty, and morality without religion is blind. The important part of the signal is the recognition that religion as an autonomous practice without morality is idolatrous—whatever form it may take.

Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes

Excerpt: Is Leviathan persuasive? One might think that the existence of the United States is sufficient refutation of Hobbes’s insistence that there can be only one source of law in a coherent political system; if federalism is one problem, the separation of powers is another. Hobbes was deeply hostile to judges who thought that their expertise in the Common Law gave them an authority equal or superior to the sovereign’s. On the other hand, one might think that the lumbering and lobbyist-ridden American system suggests that Hobbes was on to something even if we could not demonstrate it with the certainty of geometry. Above all, perhaps, his skepticism about rights and his prioritizing freedom from fear above all other freedoms still pose some awkward questions for us some 370 years later.

The Bad Conscience, Vladimir Jankélévitch

Vladimir Jankélévitch explores the therapeutic potential of a bad conscience and remorse, assuming that authentic remorse arises spontaneously in the agonized mind and not as a intellectualized moralistic demand on the self.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin

The essay explores lessons from Darwinian natural history for a theory of human history and human society, of a non-biologistic and non-Social-Darwinist kind. It looks in particular at the differences and communalities between speciation in nature and specialization in society, drawing on the traditions of Smith, Durkheim, and Marx in particular.

Possession: A Romance, A. S. Byatt

How well can anyone know a historical figure? How well can one person know another? What really matters? This essay explores those questions with reference to A .S. Byatt’s masterpiece, Possession. A novel or a romance will not give crisp answers to such questions, but Byatt’s answers, at once life-affirming and heartbreaking, are the right ones.


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