Front Table - 10/5/2020

October 5th, 2020

On our Front Table this week, explore the many meanings of freedom with reflections on the struggle against Hindu nationalism in an era of authoritarian turns, a re-evaluation of a painter's creative liberation, an epistolary record of existentialist transcendence, a study of children's capacity to effect democratic change, an analysis of the contradictions of free market globalization, and a radical rethinking of the history of secular political thought in India. Browse anytime at semcoop.com.


Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction  (Haymarket Books)

Arundhati Roy

The chant of "Azadi!"—Urdu for "Freedom!"—is the slogan of the freedom struggle in Kashmir against what Kashmiris see as the Indian Occupation. Ironically, it also became the chant of millions on the streets of India against the project of Hindu Nationalism. Even as Arundhati Roy began to ask what lay between these two calls for Freedom—a chasm or a bridge?—the streets fell silent. Not only in India, but all over the world. The coronavirus brought with it another, more terrible understanding of Azadi, making a nonsense of international borders, incarcerating whole populations, and bringing the modern world to a halt like nothing else ever could. In this series of electrifying essays, Arundhati Roy challenges us to reflect on the meaning of freedom in a world of growing authoritarianism.

Charles Rosen

Beethoven’s piano sonatas form one of the most important collections of works in the whole history of music. Spanning several decades of his life as a composer, the sonatas soon came to be seen as the first body of substantial serious works for piano suited to performance in large concert halls seating hundreds of people. In this guide, Charles Rosen places the works in context and provides an understanding of the formal principles involved in interpreting and performing this unique repertoire. In the second part of his book, he looks at the sonatas individually, from the earliest works of the 1790s through the last three sonatas of the 1820s. For today’s audience, Rosen has written a guide that brings out the gravity, passion, and humor of these works and will enrich the appreciation of a wide range of readers. The book includes a link to recordings of Rosen performing extracts from several of the sonatas, illustrating points made in the text.

 

Raymond Geuss

According to Raymond Geuss, the attempt to bypass or undercut conventional ways of thinking represents philosophy at its best and most characteristic. To illustrate, Geuss explores the ideas of twelve philosophers who broke dramatically with prevailing wisdom, from Socrates and Plato in the ancient world to Wittgenstein and Adorno in our own. The result is a striking account of some of the most innovative and important philosophers in Western history and an indirect manifesto for how to pursue philosophy today. Geuss cautions that philosophers’ attempts to break from convention do not necessarily make the world a better place. But in the act of provoking people to think differently, philosophers make clear that we are not fated to live within the often stifling systems of thought that we inherit. We can change the subject.

 

From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture  (University of Illinois Press)
Koritha Mitchell

Koritha Mitchell analyzes canonical texts by and about African American women to lay bare the hostility these women face as they invest in traditional domesticity. Instead of the respectability and safety granted white homemakers, black women endure pejorative labels, racist governmental policies, attacks on their citizenship, and aggression meant to keep them in "their place." Tracing how African Americans define and redefine success in a nation determined to deprive them of it, Mitchell plumbs the works of Frances Harper, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Michelle Obama, and others. These artists honor black homes from slavery and post-emancipation through the Civil Rights era to "post-racial" America. Mitchell follows black families asserting their citizenship in domestic settings while the larger society and culture marginalize and attack them, not because they are deviants or failures but because they meet American standards. Powerful and provocative, From Slave Cabins to the White House illuminates the links between African American women's homemaking and citizenship in history and across literature.

 

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist  (Princeton University Press)

Janis Tomlinson

The life of Francisco Goya (1746–1828) coincided with an age of transformation in Spanish history. In this biography, Janis Tomlinson draws on a wide range of documents to provide a nuanced portrait of a multifaceted painter and printmaker, whose art is synonymous with compelling images of the people, events, and social revolution that defined his life and era. Tomlinson challenges the popular image of the artist as an isolated figure obsessed with darkness and death, showing how Goya’s likeability and ambition contributed to his success at court, and offering new perspectives on his youth, rich family life, extensive travels, and lifelong friendships. She explores the full breadth of his imagery—from scenes inspired by life in Madrid to visions of worlds without reason, from royal portraits to the atrocities of war. She sheds light on the artist’s personal trials, but also reconsiders the conventional interpretation of Goya’s late years as a period of disillusion, viewing them instead as years of liberated artistic invention.

 

Mark McClish

The Arthaśāstra is the foundational text of Indic political thought and ancient India's most important treatise on statecraft and governance. It is traditionally believed that politics in ancient India was ruled by religion; that kings strove to fulfill their sacred duty; and that sovereignty was circumscribed by the sacred law of dharma. Mark McClish's evaluation of the Arthaśāstra's early history shows that these ideas only came to prominence in the statecraft tradition late in the classical period. With a thorough chronological exploration, he demonstrates that the text originally espoused a political philosophy characterized by empiricism and pragmatism, ignoring the mandate of dharma altogether. The political theology of dharma was incorporated when the text was redacted in the late classical period, which obscured the existence of an independent political tradition in ancient India and reinforced the erroneous notion that ancient India was ruled by religion, not politics.

 

Katrina: A History, 1915-2015  (Harvard University Press)

Andy Horowitz

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, but the decisions that caused the disaster extend across the twentieth century. After the city weathered a major hurricane in 1915, its Sewerage and Water Board believed that developers could safely build housing away from the high ground near the Mississippi. And so New Orleans grew in lowlands. When the levee system surrounding the city and its suburbs failed, these were the neighborhoods that were devastated. The flood line tells one important story about Katrina, but it is not the only story that matters. Andy Horowitz investigates the response to the flood, when policymakers reapportioned the challenges the water posed, making it easier for white New Orleanians to return home than it was for African Americans. And he explores how the profits and liabilities created by Louisiana’s oil industry have been distributed unevenly among the state’s citizens for a century. Laying bare the relationship between structural inequality and physical infrastructure, Katrina offers a chilling glimpse of the future disasters we are already creating.

 

Marc Levinson

Globalization has profoundly shaped the world we live in, yet its rise was neither inevitable nor planned. It is also one of the most contentious issues of our time. While it may have made goods less expensive, it has also sent massive flows of money across borders and shaken the global balance of power. Outside the Box offers a fresh and lively history of globalization, showing how it has evolved over two centuries in response to changes in demography, technology, and consumer tastes. Marc Levinson, the acclaimed author of The Box, tells the story of globalization through the people who eliminated barriers and pursued new ways of doing business. In Outside the Box, Levinson explains that globalization is entering a new era in which moving stuff will matter much less than moving services, information, and ideas.

 

Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir  (Cornell University Press)

Judith G. Coffin

When Judith G. Coffin discovered a virtually unexplored treasure trove of letters to Simone de Beauvoir from her international readers, it inspired her to explore the intimate bond between the famed author and her reading public. This correspondence, at the heart of Sex, Love, and Letters, immerses us in the tumultuous decades from the late 1940s to the 1970s. It also provides a glimpse into the power of reading and the power of readers to seduce the authors of their favorite books. Coffin traces the relationship between Beauvoir and her audience, offering an unfamiliar perspective on one of the most magnetic and polarizing philosophers of the twentieth century. We meet many great writers of her generation—Hannah Arendt; Dominique Aury, author of The Story of O; François Mauriac, winner of the Nobel Prize and nemesis of Camus; Betty Friedan; and, of course, Sartre—bringing the salon experience to life. Her readers did not simply pen fan letters but, as Coffin shows, engaged in a dialogue that revealed intellectual and literary life to be a joint and collaborative production.
 

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy  (Princeton University Press)

Mircea Eliade

Shamanism is an essential work on the study of this mysterious and fascinating phenomenon. The founder of the modern study of the history of religion, Mircea Eliade surveys the tradition through two and a half millennia of human history, moving from the shamanic traditions of Siberia and Central Asia—where shamanism was first observed—to North and South America, Indonesia, Tibet, China, and beyond.  Eliade illuminates the magico-religious life of societies that give primacy of place to the figure of the shaman—at once magician and medicine man, healer and miracle-doer, priest, mystic, and poet. Synthesizing the approaches of psychology, sociology, and ethnology, Shamanism remains the reference book of choice for those interested in this practice.

 

Voice, Choice, and Action: The Potential of Young Citizens to Heal Democracy  (Belknap Press)

Felton Earls and Mary Carlson

Voice, Choice, and Action is the fruit of the personal and professional partnership of a psychiatrist and a neurobiologist whose research and social activism have informed each other for the last thirty years. Inspired by the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Felton Earls and Mary Carlson embarked on a series of international studies that would recognize the voice of children. Children all over the world demonstrated an unappreciated but powerful interest in the common good. On the basis of these experiences, Earls and Carlson mounted a field study in Moshi, Tanzania, which demonstrated that young citizens could change attitudes about HIV/AIDS and mobilize their communities to confront the epidemic. The program, outlined in this book, promoted children’s communicative and reasoning capacities, guiding their growth as deliberative citizens. The program’s success exceeded all expectations. Here in detail are the science, ethics, and everyday practice of fostering young citizens eager to confront diverse health and social challenges. At a moment when adults regularly profess dismay about our capacity for effective action, Voice, Choice, and Action offers inspiration and tools for participatory democracy.

Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager
 
Before Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Jonathan Lethem became revered authors, they were readers. In this ebullient book, America’s favorite librarian Nancy Pearl and noted-playwright Jeff Schwager interview a diverse range of America's most notable and influential writers about the books that shaped them and inspired them to leave their own literary mark. Illustrated with beautiful line drawings, The Writer’s Library is a revelatory exploration of the studies, libraries, and bookstores of today’s favorite authors.
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