Front Table - 9/10/2020

September 10th, 2020

On this week's front table, explore the forces that drive historical change, including the impact of the internet on linguistic innovation, the interrelation of artistic avant-gardes with the development of counter-liberal feminisms, the vicissitudes of capitalist globalizaton, and the tensions in Frantz Fanon's view of revolutionary transformation. Browse anytime at

The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War
(W. W. Norton & Company)
J. Alison Rosenblitt

E. E. Cummings is not often thought of as a war poet, but The Beauty of Living argues that his experience in France and as a prisoner during World War I escalated his earliest breaks with conventional form. As the United States prepared to enter World War I, Cummings volunteered as an ambulance driver and shipped out to Paris. Soon after reaching the front, however, he was unjustly imprisoned in a French detention center. Through this confrontation with arbitrary and sadistic authority, he found the courage to listen to his own voice. Probing an underexamined yet formative time in the poet’s life, this book illuminates his ideas about love, justice, humanity, and brutality. J. Alison Rosenblitt weaves together letters, journal entries, and sketches with analyses of poems that span Cummings’s career, revealing the origins of one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
(Riverhead Books)

Gretchen McCulloch

Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project, according to internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch, and the internet is making our language change faster and in more interesting ways than ever before. McCulloch explores the deep forces that shape human language and influence the way we communicate with one another. She explains how your first social internet experience influences whether you prefer “LOL” or “lol,” why ~sparkly tildes~ succeeded where centuries of proposals for irony punctuation had failed, what emoji have in common with physical gestures, and how the artfully disarrayed language of animal memes like lolcats and doggo made them more likely to spread.

A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane (W. W. Norton & Company)
Samanth Subramanian

J. B. S. Haldane’s life was rich and strange, never short on genius or drama. He is best remembered as a geneticist who revolutionized our understanding of evolution, but his peers hailed him as a polymath. His contributions ranged over physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, mathematics, and biostatistics. He was also a staunch Communist. He wrote copiously on science and politics in newspapers and magazines, and he gave speeches in town halls and on the radio—all of which made him, in his day, as famous in Britain as Einstein. It is the duty of scientists to think politically, Haldane believed, and he sought not simply to tell his readers what to think but to show them how to think. Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character recounts Haldane’s boisterous life and examines the questions he raised about the intersections of genetics and politics—questions that resonate even more urgently today.

The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (Columbia University Press)
Jill Richards

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, radical women's movements and the avant-gardes were often in contact with one another, brought together through the socialist internationals. Jill Richards argues that these movements were not just socially linked but also deeply interconnected. Each offered the other an experimental language that could move beyond the nation-state's rights of man and citizen, suggesting an alternative conceptual vocabulary for women's rights. Richards further examines the criminal proceedings that emerged in the wake of women’s actions, tracing the way that citizen and human emerged as linked categories for women on the fringes of an international campaign for suffrage. Ultimately The Fury Archives argues that the relationship of women’s rights movements and the avant-gardes offers a radical alternative to liberal discourses of human rights in formation at the same historical moment.

Global Capitalism (W. W. Norton & Company)
Jeffrey A. Frieden

An authoritative, insightful, and highly readable history of the twentieth-century global economy, updated with a new chapter on the early decades of the new century. Global Capitalism guides the reader from the globalization of the early twentieth century and its swift collapse in the crises of 1914–45, to the return to global integration at the end of the century, and the subsequent retreat in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century? (Princeton University Press)
Derek Bok

In recent decades, cognitive psychologists have cast new light on human development and given colleges new possibilities for helping students acquire skills and qualities that will enhance their lives and increase their contributions to society. In this book, Derek Bok explores how colleges can reap the benefits of these discoveries and create a more robust undergraduate curriculum for the twenty-first century. Prior to this century, most psychologists thought that personality traits like empathy and resilience were largely fixed by early childhood. Researchers now know that virtually all of these qualities continue to change throughout life. Such findings suggest that educators could do more than was previously thought possible to teach students to develop these important characteristics and thereby enable them to flourish. In this book, Bok identifies the hurdles to institutional change, proposes sensible reforms, and demonstrates how our colleges can help students lead more successful, productive, and meaningful lives.

Nahmanides: Law & Mysticism (Yale University Press)
Moshe Halbertal, translated by Daniel Tabak

Rabbi Moses b. Nahman (1194–1270), known in English as Nahmanides, was a major Talmudic scholar of the thirteenth century. Beyond his monumental scholastic achievements, Nahmanides was a distinguished kabbalist and mystic, and in his commentary on the Torah he dispensed esoteric kabbalistic teachings that he termed “By Way of Truth.” This broad, systematic account of Nahmanides’s thought explores his conception of halakhah and his approach to the central concerns of medieval Jewish thought, including notions of God, history, revelation, and the reasons for the commandments. The relationship between Nahmanides’s kabbalah and mysticism and the existential religious drive that nourishes them, as well as the legal and exoteric aspects of his thinking, are at the center of Moshe Halbertal’s portrayal of Nahmanides as a complex and transformative thinker.

Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmmaker (Yale University Press)
David Mikics

Stanley Kubrick grew up in the Bronx, a doctor’s son. From a young age he was consumed by photography, chess, and, above all else, movies. He was a self-taught filmmaker and self-proclaimed outsider, and his films exist in a unique world of their own outside the Hollywood mainstream. Kubrick’s Jewishness played a crucial role in his idea of himself as an outsider. Obsessed with rebellion against authority, war, and male violence, Kubrick was himself a calm, coolly masterful creator and a talkative, ever-curious polymath immersed in friends and family. Drawing on interviews and new archival material, David Mikics explores the personal side of Kubrick’s films.

Stardust to Stardust: Reflections on Living and Dying (Haymarket Books)
Erik Olin Wright

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright takes us along on his intimate and brave journey toward death and asks the big questions about human mortality. Human life is a wild, extraordinary phenomenon: elements are brewed in the center of stars and spewed across the universe; they eventually clumped into a minor planet; then after some billions of years this “stardust” became what we call life. More billions of years pass and these self-replicating molecules evolve into organisms which gain awareness and then consciousness, and finally, consciousness of their consciousness. Stardust turned into conscious living matter aware of its own existence. And with that comes consciousness of mortality. According to Wright, the fact that he, a conscious being, will cease to exist pales in significance to the fact that he exists at all. He doesn't find that this robs his existence of meaning; it’s what makes infusing life with meaning possible.

Subterranean Fanon: An Underground Theory of Radical Change
(Columbia University Press)
Gavin Arnall

The problem of change recurs across Frantz Fanon’s writings. As a philosopher, psychiatrist, and revolutionary, Fanon was deeply committed to theorizing and instigating change in all of its facets. Gavin Arnall traces an internal division throughout Fanon’s work between two distinct modes of thinking about change. He contends that there are two Fanons: a dominant Fanon who conceives of change as a dialectical process of becoming and a subterranean Fanon who experiments with an even more explosive underground theory of transformation. Arnall offers close readings of Fanon’s entire oeuvre, including his psychiatric papers and recently published materials. Speaking both to scholars and to the continued vitality of Fanon’s ideas among today’s social movements, this book offers a rigorous engagement with Fanon that affirms his importance in the effort to bring about radical change.

The Talmud: A Biography (Princeton University Press)
Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

The Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book, explaining why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for supporters and critics alike.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion (Random House Trade)
Jia Tolentino

In this dazzling collection of nine original essays, Jia Tolentino delves into the forces that warp our vision. Trick Mirror is a trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly through a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the advent of scamming as the definitive millennial ethos; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the punitive dream of optimization, which insists that everything, including our bodies, should become more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the reader with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic.

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