Front Table - 9/3/21

September 3rd, 2021

On our Front Table this weekexplore natural histories of everyday experiences, from a neuroscientific account of our ideas of "luck," to the cultural and environmental meanings of seashells, and the surprisingly recent historical emergence of our notions of a "self." Find the following titles and more at

The Book of Mormon: A Biography 
(Princeton University Press)
Paul C. Gutjahr

Late one night in 1823, Joseph Smith, Jr., was reportedly visited in his family’s farmhouse in upstate New York by an angel named Moroni. According to Smith, Moroni told him of a buried stack of gold plates that were inscribed with a history of the Americas’ ancient peoples, and which would restore the pure Gospel message as Jesus had delivered it to them. Thus began the unlikely career of the Book of Mormon, the founding text of the Mormon religion and perhaps the most important sacred text ever to originate in the United States. Paul Gutjahr traces the life of this remarkable book, showing how it launched one of the fastest-growing new religions on the planet and has featured in everything from comic books and action figures to movies and an award-winning Broadway musical.

Lakefront  (Cornell University Press)
Joseph T. Kearney and Thomas Merrill

How did Chicago, a city known for commerce, come to have such a splendid public waterfront—its most treasured asset? Lakefront reveals a story of social, political, and legal conflict in which private and public rights have clashed repeatedly over time, only to produce, as a kind of miracle, a generally happy ending. Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill study the lakefront's evolution from the middle of the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Their findings have significance for understanding not only Chicago's history but also the law's part in determining the future of significant urban resources such as waterfronts. By charting its history, Kearney and Merrill demonstrate that the lakefront's current status is in part a product of individuals and events unique to Chicago. But technological changes, and a transformation in social values in favor of recreational and preservationist uses, also have been critical. Throughout, the law, while also in a state of continual change, has played at least a supporting role.

One-Way Street (Belknap Press)
Walter Benjamin

One-Way Street is a thoroughfare unlike anything else in literature––by turns exhilarating and bewildering, requiring mental agility and a special kind of urban literacy. Presented here in a new edition with expanded notes, this genre-defying meditation on the semiotics of late-1920s Weimar culture offers a fresh opportunity to encounter Walter Benjamin at his most virtuosic and experimental, writing in a vein that anticipates later masterpieces such as On the Concept of History and The Arcades Project. Composed of sixty short prose pieces that vary wildly in style and theme, One-Way Street evokes a dense cityscape of shops, cafes, and apartments, alive with the hubbub of social interactions and papered over with public inscriptions of all kinds: advertisements, signs, posters, slogans. Providing remarkable insight into the occluded meanings of everyday things, Benjamin time and again proves himself the unrivaled interpreter of what he called "the soul of the commodity."


The Outlier (Crown Publishing Group NY)

Kai Bird
Four decades after Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency is often labeled a failure; indeed, many Americans view Carter as the only ex-president to have used the White House as a stepping-stone to greater achievements. But in retrospect the Carter political odyssey is a rich and human story, marked by both formidable accomplishments and painful political adversity. In this deeply researched, brilliantly written account, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Kai Bird expertly unfolds the Carter saga as a tragic tipping point in American history. As president, Carter was not merely an outsider; he was an outlier. He was the only president in a century to grow up in the heart of the Deep South, and his born-again Christianity made him the most openly religious president in memory. This outlier brought to the White House a rare mix of humility, candor, and unnerving self-confidence that neither Washington nor America was ready to embrace. Drawing on interviews with Carter and members of his administration and recently declassified documents, Bird delivers a profound, clear-eyed evaluation of a leader whose legacy has been deeply misunderstood. 

Presumed Guilty (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Erwin Chemerinsky 

Today in the United States, much attention is focused on the enormous problems of police violence and racism in law enforcement. Too often, though, that attention fails to place the blame where it most belongs, on the courts, and specifically, on the Supreme Court. A “smoking gun” of civil rights research, Presumed Guilty presents a groundbreaking, decades-long history of judicial failure in America, revealing how the Supreme Court has enabled racist practices, including profiling and intimidation, and legitimated gross law enforcement excesses that disproportionately affect people of color. From its conception in the late eighteenth century until the Warren Court in 1953, the Supreme Court rarely ruled against the police, and then only when police conduct was truly shocking. Animating seminal cases and justices from the Court’s history, Chemerinsky shows how the Court has time and again refused to impose constitutional checks on police, all the while deliberately gutting remedies Americans might use to challenge police misconduct.

Secret Selves: A History of Our Inner Space (Bloomsbury Academic)
Stephen Prickett

Who are we and how do we define our inner selves? In his last work, Professor Stephen Prickett presents a literary and cultural exploration of our inner selves––and how we have created and written about them––from the Old Testament to social media. What he finds is that although our secret, inner, sense of self––what we feel makes us distinctively 'us'––seems a natural and permanent part of being human, it is in fact surprisingly new. Whilst confessional religious writings, from Augustine to Jane Austen, or even diaries of 20th-century Holocaust victims, have explored inwards as part of a path to self-discovery, our inner space has expanded beyond any possible personal experience. This development has enhanced our capacity not merely to write about what we have never seen, but even to create fantasies and impossible fictions around them. From the origin of human consciousness through modern history and into the future, Secret Selves uses literature to consider the profound possibilities and ramifications of our evolving ideas of self.

The Sound of the Sea (W.W. Norton, Company)
Cynthia Barnett

In The Sound of the Sea, acclaimed environmental author Cynthia Barnett blends cultural history and science to trace our long love affair with seashells and the hidden lives of the mollusks that make them. Spiraling out from the great cities of shell that once rose in North America to the warming waters of the Maldives and the slave castles of Ghana, Barnett has created an unforgettable account of the world’s most iconic seashells. She begins with their childhood wonder, unwinds surprising histories like the origin of Shell Oil as a family business importing exotic shells, and charts what shells and the soft animals that build them are telling scientists about our warming, acidifying seas. From the eerie calls of early shell trumpets to the evolutionary miracle of spines and spires and the modern science of carbon capture inspired by shell, Barnett circles to her central point of listening to nature’s wisdom––and acting on what seashells have to say about taking care of each other and our world.

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman 
(Penguin Group)
Melanie Magidow

Published in English for the first time, and the only Arabic epic named for a woman, The Tale of Princess Fatima recounts the thrilling adventures of a legendary medieval warrior universally known throughout the Middle East and long overdue to join world literature's pantheon of female heroes. A fearsome, sword-slinging heroine who defeated countless men in stealth attacks on horseback, Dhat al-Himma, or Princess Fatima, was secretly given away at birth because she wasn’t male, only to triumph as the most formidable warrior of her time. Known alternately as “she-wolf,” “woman of high resolve,” and “calamity of the soul,” she lives on in this rousing narrative of female empowerment, in which she leads armies of more than seventy thousand men in clashes between rival tribes and between Muslims and Christians; reconciles with her father after taking him prisoner; and fends off her infatuated cousin, who challenges her to a battle for the right to marry her. The epic culminates in a showdown between Fatima and another formidable warrior woman, and earns Fatima a place alongside the likes of Circe, Mulan, Wonder Woman, Katniss Everdeen and other powerful women.

What Are the Chances?: Why We Believe in Luck 
(Columbia University Press)
Barbara Blatchley

What Are the Chances? reveals how psychology and neuroscience explain the significance of the idea of luck. Barbara Blatchley explores how people react to random events in a range of circumstances, examining the evidence that the belief in luck helps us cope with a lack of control. She tells the stories of lucky and unlucky people––who won the lottery multiple times, survived seven brushes with death, or found an apparently cursed Neanderthal mummy––as well as the accidental discoveries that fundamentally changed what we know about the brain. Blatchley considers our frequent misunderstanding of randomness, the history of luckiness in different cultures and religions, the surprising benefits of magical thinking, and many other topics. Offering a new view of how the brain handles the unexpected, What Are the Chances? shows why an arguably irrational belief can––fingers crossed––help us as we struggle with an unpredictable world.

White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa (PublicAffairs)
Susan Williams

Accra, 1958. Africa’s liberation leaders have gathered for a conference, full of strength, purpose and vision. Newly independent Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba strike up a close partnership. Everything seems possible. But, within a few years, both men will have been targeted by the CIA, and their dream of true African autonomy undermined. The United States, watching the Europeans withdraw from Africa, was determined to take control. Pan-Africanism was inspiring African Americans fighting for civil rights; the threat of Soviet influence over new African governments loomed; and the idea of an atomic reactor in black hands was unacceptable. The conclusion was simple: the US had to ‘recapture’ Africa, in the shadows, by any means necessary. Renowned historian Susan Williams dives into the archives, revealing new, shocking details of America’s covert program in Africa. As the colonizers moved out, the Americans swept in––with bitter consequences that reverberate in Africa to this day.