Front Table - 9/24/2020

September 24th, 2020

On our Front Table this week, find reflections on scholarly and artistic method with a study of medieval Christian devotional objects that culminates in a critique of comparativism, a meditation on the temporal conditions of the creative process, and an exploration of the tensions between the emancipatory claims of scholarship and its implication in structures of domination. Browse anytime at

 Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (Polity Press)
Theodor W. Adorno, trans. by Wieland Hoban

On 6 April 1967, Theodor W. Adorno gave a lecture which is not merely of historical interest. Against the background of the rise of the National Democratic Party of Germany, Adorno analysed the goals, resources and tactics of the new right-wing nationalism of this time. Contrasting it with the ‘old’ fascism of the Nazis, Adorno gave particular attention to the ways in which far-right movements elicited enthusiastic support in sections of the West German population, 20 years after the war had ended. Adorno’s penetrating analysis of the sources of right-wing radicalism is as relevant today as it was five decades ago. It is a prescient message to future generations who find themselves embroiled once again in a struggle against a resurgent nationalism and right-wing extremism.

Borges and Me: An Encounter (Doubleday Books)
Jay Parini

In 1971 Jay Parini was an aspiring poet and graduate student of literature at University of St. Andrews in Scotland; he was also in flight from being drafted into service in the Vietnam War. One day his friend and mentor, Alastair Reid, asked Jay if he could play host for a “visiting Latin American writer” while he attended to business in London. He agreed–and that “writer” turned out to be the blind and aged and eccentric master of literary compression and metaphysics, Jorge Luis Borges. About whom Jay Parini knew precisely nothing. What ensued was a seriocomic romp across the Scottish landscape that Borges insisted he must “see,” all the while declaiming and reciting from the literary encyclopedia that was his head, and Jay Parini’s eventual reckoning with his vocation and personal fate.

The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit (Penguin Press)
Ian Buruma

At the heart of this book is a series of shrewd and absorbing character studies of the relationship of presidents to prime ministers. As Ian Buruma demonstrates. it's impossible to understand the last 75 years of American history without understanding such bonds. FDR of course had Churchill. JFK famously had Macmillan. Reagan found his ideological soul mate in Thatcher, and George W. Bush found his fellow believer, in religion and in war, in Tony Blair. And now it is impossible to understand the populist uprising in either country without reference to Trump and Boris Johnson. This has never been a relationship of equals: for England, resigned to the diminishment of its power, its close kinship to the world’s greatest superpower would give it continued relevance. But as Buruma argues, this was almost always fool’s gold. Now, even as the links between the Brexit vote and the 2016 US election become clearer, the Anglo-American alliance has been damaged by the isolationism that is one of 2016’s signal legacies.

Coventry: Essays (Picador USA)
Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk redrew the boundaries of fiction with the Outline Trilogy, three “literary masterpieces” (The Washington Post) whose narrator, Faye, perceives the world with piercing intelligence while remaining opaque to the reader. Now, in Coventry, Cusk gathers a selection of her nonfiction writings that both offers new insights on the themes at the heart of her fiction and forges a startling critical voice on some of our most urgent personal, social, and artistic questions. Coventry encompasses memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about literature, with pieces on family life, gender, and politics, and on D. H. Lawrence, Françoise Sagan, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Named for an essay Cusk published in Granta, this collection is pure Cusk and essential reading for our age: fearless, unrepentantly erudite, and dazzling to behold.

Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe (Zone Books)
Caroline Walker Bynum

Between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, European Christians worshipped with a surprising plethora of things. Theologians and ordinary worshippers alike explained, utilized, justified, and warned against objects which might, at the same time, testify to violent anti-Semitism and to the glorious promise of heaven. The proliferation and the reaction to such holy objects form a crucial, yet often overlooked and misunderstood, background to the European movements we know today as the Protestant and Catholic “reformations.” In a set of essays, Caroline Walker Bynum considers examples of such holy things — beds for the baby Jesus, headdresses of medieval nuns, and linen strings that pilgrims returning from the Holy Land had cut to the measure of Christ’s footprints. Bynum offers two arguments, one substantive, the other methodological. First, she demonstrates that the objects themselves communicate a paradox of dissimilar similitude: in their very details these objects both image the glory of heaven and show the impossibility of representing heaven in earthly things. Second, Bynum uses the theme of likeness and unlikeness to interrogate current practices of comparative history. She proposes that contemporary students of religion, art, and culture should avoid comparing things that merely “look alike.” Instead, they should embrace a cross-cultural comparison of objects which worshippers and theorists alike identify as the locus of the “other” that gives religion its power.

Finding My Father: His Century-Long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow (Ballantine Books)
Deborah Tannen

In this memoir, Deborah Tannen embarks on the quest to piece together the puzzle of her father’s life. Beginning with his memories of the Hasidic community in Warsaw, she traces his journey: from arriving in New York City in 1920 to quitting high school at fourteen to support his mother and sister, through a vast array of jobs, to eventually establishing the largest workers’ compensation law practice in New York and running for Congress. As Tannen comes to better understand her father’s—and her own—relationship to Judaism, she uncovers aspects of his life she would never have imagined. Finding My Father is a memoir of Eli Tannen’s life and the ways in which it reflects the near century that he lived. Even more than that, it’s an unflinching account of a daughter’s struggle to see her father clearly, to know him more deeply, and to find a more truthful story about her family and herself.

For Now (Yale University Press)
Eileen Myles

In this book, Eileen Myles offers an intimate glimpse into creativity’s immediacy. Myles recounts their early years as an awakening writer; existential struggles with landlords; storied moments with neighbors, friends, and lovers; and the textures and identities of cities and the country that reveal the nature of writing as presence in time. For Myles, time’s “optic quality” is what enables writing in the first place. It is this chronologized vision that enables the writer to love the world as it presently is, lending love a linguistic permanence amid social and political systems that threaten to eradicate it. Irreverent, generous, and always insightful, For Now is a candid record of the creative process from one of our most beloved artists.

Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press)
Edward L. Greenstein

The book of Job has often been called the greatest poem ever written. Despite the text’s literary prestige and cultural prominence, no English translation has come close to conveying the proper sense of the original. The book has consequently been misunderstood in innumerable details and in its main themes. Edward Greenstein’s new translation of Job is the culmination of decades of intensive research and painstaking philological and literary analysis, offering a major reinterpretation of this canonical text. Through his beautifully rendered translation and insightful introduction and commentary, Greenstein presents a new perspective: Job, he shows, was defiant of God until the end. The book is more about speaking truth to power than the problem of unjust suffering.


Lecture (Transit Books)
Mary Cappello

Mary Cappello's Lecture is a song for the forgotten art of the lecture. Brimming with energy and erudition, it is an attempt to restore the lecture's capacity to wander, question, and excite. Cappello draws on examples from Virginia Woolf to Mary Ruefle, Ralph Waldo Emerson to James Baldwin, blending rigorous cultural criticism with personal history to explore the lecture in its many forms―from the aphorism to the note―and give new life to knowledge’s dramatic form.


Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago (University of Illinois Press)
Roger Biles

Harold Washington made history as the city's first African American mayor. His 1983 electoral triumph represented victory over the Chicago Machine and business as usual. Yet the racially charged campaign heralded an era of bitter political divisiveness that obstructed his efforts to change city government. Roger Biles's sweeping biography provides a definitive account of Washington and his journey from the state legislature to the mayoralty. Once in City Hall, Washington confronted the corruption and palm greasing that fueled the city's autocratic political regime. His alternative: a vision of fairness, transparency, neighborhood empowerment, and balanced economic growth at one with his emergence as a champion for African American uplift and a crusader for progressive causes. Biles charts the countless infamies of the Council Wars era and Washington's own growth through his winning of a second term—a promise of lasting reform left unfulfilled when the mayor died in 1987.

Scholarship and Freedom (Harvard University Press)
Geoffrey Galt Harpham

Why are scholars and scholarship invariably distrusted and attacked by authoritarian regimes? Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that at its core, scholarship is informed by an emancipatory agenda based on a permanent openness to the new, an unlimited responsiveness to evidence, and a commitment to conversion. At the same time, however, scholarship involves its own forms of authority. As a worldly practice, it is a struggle for dominance without end as scholars try to disprove the claims of others, establish new versions of the truth, and seek disciples. Scholarship and Freedom threads its general arguments through examinations of the careers of three scholars: W. E. B. Du Bois, who serves as an example of scholarly character formation; South African Bernard Lategan, whose New Testament studies became entangled on both sides of the over apartheid; and Linda Nochlin, who virtually created the field of feminist art history.

Wendy Carlos: A Biography (Oxford University Press)
Amanda Sewell

With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. Carlos's identity as a transgender woman has shaped many aspects of her life, her career, how she relates to the public, and how the public has received her and her music.There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture.

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