Front Table 2/3/2023

February 3rd, 2023

On this week's Front Table, find a mosaic of the historical fragments, diaries, criticism and research that shaped the modern world: from a braided narrative of two leaders who embodied the fighting spirit of the 1960s to a deeper dive into one of the world’s most influential poems that described the moral decay of a world after war. Find the following and more at

Kandinsky: Incarnating Beauty
(David Zwirner Books)
Alexandre Kojeve

A teacher to Jacques Lacan, André Breton, and Albert Camus, Kojève defined art as the act of extracting the beautiful from objective reality. His poetic text, "The Concrete Paintings of Kandinsky," endorses nonrepresentational art as uniquely manifesting beauty. Taking the paintings of his renowned uncle, Wassily Kandinsky, as his inspiration, Kojève suggests that in creating (rather than replicating) beauty, the paintings are themselves complete universes as concrete as the natural world. Kojève's text considers the utility and necessity of beauty in life, and ultimately poses the involuted question: What is beauty? Including personal letters between Kandinsky and his nephew, this book further elaborates the unique relationship between artist and philosopher. An introduction by Boris Groys contextualizes Kojève's life and writings.


King David and Boss Daley: The Black Disciples, Mayor Daley, and Chicago on the Edge
(Prometheus Books)
Lance Williams

In Chicago in mid-twentieth century amid the haze and smoke of urban renewal and the sounds of the wrecking balls and bulldozers, there lived two men, both street-savvy, one Black, one Irish, one young, one old and both leaders of their clans. Each ruled with an iron fist. Each embodied the fighting spirit of the turbulent 1960s. One was David Barksdale, the Black Disciples leader, a Black youth club that would give birth to America's largest street gang; the other was Richard J. Daley, the legendary Mayor of the City of Chicago. He was one of the longest-serving, most prominent mayors in American history and the last of the big-city "bosses." Although the two never met, at least not face-to-face, their fates were linked by a time of change, an era of protest, which was a decisive moment of transformational power that was on the verge of a violent uprising in America's second-largest city. This is a book that is as lively as its subject. A braided narrative of two larger than life people, it has the boldness to combine two oddly related 1960s stories into a single narrative that is both intimate and epic. 

Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History
(Princeton University Press)
Derek Sayer

Postcards from Absurdistan is a cultural and political history of Prague from 1938, when the Nazis destroyed Czechoslovakia's artistically vibrant liberal democracy, to 1989, when the country's socialist regime collapsed after more than four decades of communist dictatorship. Derek Sayer shows that Prague's twentieth century, far from being a story of inexorable progress toward some "end of history," whether fascist, communist, or democratic, was a tragicomedy of recurring nightmares played out in a land Czech dissidents dubbed Absurdistan. Situated in the eye of the storms that shaped the modern world, Prague holds up an unsettling mirror to the absurdities and dangers of our own times. In a brilliant narrative, Sayer weaves a vivid montage of the lives of individual Praguers--poets and politicians, architects and athletes, journalists and filmmakers, artists, musicians, and comedians--caught up in the crosscurrents of the turbulent half century following the Nazi invasion. In a time when democracy is once again under global assault, Postcards from Absurdistan is an unforgettable portrait of a city that illuminates the predicaments of the modern world.

Reason in Nature: New Essays on Themes from John McDowell
(Harvard University Press)
Matthew Boyle

John McDowell is one of the English-speaking world's most influential living philosophers, whose work has shaped debates in mind, language, metaphysics, epistemology, meta-ethics, and the history of philosophy. A common thread running through McDowell's diverse contributions has been his critique of a form of reductive naturalism according to which human minds must be governed by laws essentially similar to those that govern the rest of nature. Against this widely accepted view, McDowell maintains that human minds should be seen as "transformed" by reason in such a way that the principles governing our minds, while not supernatural, are in an important sense sui generis. In clarifying and expanding McDowell's insights, Reason in Nature challenges contemporary orthodoxy, much as McDowell himself has. And, as this collection makes clear, McDowell's unorthodox position is of enduring importance and has wide-ranging implications, still not fully appreciated, for ongoing philosophical debates.

Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition
(Princeton University Press)
Ahmed El Shamsy

Islamic book culture dates back to late antiquity, when Muslim scholars began to write down their doctrines on parchment, papyrus, and paper and then to compose increasingly elaborate analyses of, and commentaries on, these ideas. Movable type was adopted in the Middle East only in the early nineteenth century, and it wasn't until the second half of the century that the first works of classical Islamic religious scholarship were printed there. But from that moment on, Ahmed El Shamsy reveals, the technology of print transformed Islamic scholarship and Arabic literature. In the first wide-ranging account of the effects of print and the publishing industry on Islamic scholarship, El Shamsy tells the fascinating story of how a small group of editors and intellectuals brought forgotten works of Islamic literature into print and defined what became the classical canon of Islamic thought. Bringing to light the agents and events of the Islamic print revolution, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics is an absorbing examination of the central role printing and its advocates played in the intellectual history of the modern Arab world.

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem
(W. W. Norton)
Matthew Hollis

Renowned as one of the world's greatest poems, The Waste Land has been said to describe the moral decay of a world after war and the search for meaning in a meaningless era. It has been labeled the most truthful poem of its time; it has been branded a masterful fake. A century after its publication in 1922, T. S. Eliot's enigmatic masterpiece remains one of the most influential works ever written, and yet one of the most mysterious. In a remarkable feat of biography, Matthew Hollis reconstructs the intellectual creation of the poem and brings the material reality of its charged times vividly to life. Presenting a mosaic of historical fragments, diaries, dynamic literary criticism, and illuminating new research, he reveals the cultural and personal trauma that forged The Waste Land through the lives of its protagonists--of Ezra Pound, who edited it; of Vivien Eliot, who sustained it; and of T. S. Eliot himself, whose private torment is woven into the seams of the work. The result is an unforgettable story of lives passing in opposing directions and the astounding literary legacy they would leave behind.

Why Dance Matters
(Yale University Press)
Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff, a journalist, an essayist, and a dance critic, analyzes dance as the ultimate expression of human energy and feeling. From her personal anecdotes, her engaging collection of stories about dance from around the world, or her description of the captivating photograph by Helen Levitt of two children dancing, which she sees as one embodiment of the mystery and joy that dancing can evoke, Aloff's exploration of the aesthetic, social, and spiritual impacts of dance will prove spellbinding. Aloff takes us on a journey through various forms of dance--rituals, religious observances, storytelling, musical interpretations--to show why dance matters to human beings. Interlaced with personal experiences, this book builds on analysis to reveal the intimate relationship we have with dance--personal, spiritual, soul-searching, medicinal, and entertaining. The ideas speak to both specialist and general readers.

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