Front Table - 9/3/2020

September 3rd, 2020

On this week's front table, encounter thought-provoking juxtapositions of scale: an astrophysicist grappling with personal loss; the global reception of intimate artistic works; a remote Tibetan community facing large-scale historical transformations; and more. Browse anytime at

Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic (Columbia University Press)
Alvaro Santana-Acuna 

Ascent to Glory is a study of One Hundred Years of Solitude, from the moment Gabriel García Márquez first had the idea for the novel to its global consecration. Using new documents from the author’s archives, Álvaro Santana-Acuña shows how García Márquez wrote the novel. He unveils the literary ideas and networks that made possible the book’s creation and initial success. Santana-Acuña then follows this novel’s path in more than seventy countries on five continents and explains how thousands of people and organizations have helped it to become a global classic. Shedding new light on the novel’s imagination, production, and reception, Ascent to Glory is an eye-opening book for cultural sociologists and literary historians as well as for fans of García Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The "Black Art" Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism Across Continents (University of California Press)
Joshua I. Cohen

Reading African art’s impact on modernism as an international phenomenon, The “Black Art” Renaissance tracks a series of twentieth-century engagements with canonical African sculpture by European, African American, and sub-Saharan African artists and theorists. The Paris avant-garde “discovery” of African sculpture—known then as art nègre, or “black art”—eventually came to affect nascent Afro-modernisms, whose artists and critics used the same sculptural canon and the same term. "Black art” evolved as a framework for asserting control over appropriative practices introduced by Europeans, and it helped forge alliances by redefining concepts of humanism, race, and civilization. Through this study, Joshua I. Cohen argues that art history’s alleged centers and margins must be conceived as interconnected and mutually informing. The “Black Art” Renaissance reveals just how much modern art has owed to African art on a global scale.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (Random House)
Barbara Demick

Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit. Eat the Buddha spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight? Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language against the depredations of a seemingly unstoppable, technologically all-seeing superpower. Her depiction is nuanced, unvarnished, and at times shocking.

Excluding the Jew Within Us (Polity Press)
Jean-Luc Nancy

Jean-Luc Nancy argues that anti-Semitism emerged from the conflictual conjunction of two responses to the eclipse of archaic cultures. The Greek and the Jewish responses both affirmed a humanity freed from myth but put forward two very different conceptions of autonomy: on the one hand, the infinite autonomy of knowledge, of logos, and on the other, the paradoxical autonomy of a heteronomy guided by a hidden god. The first excluded the second while simultaneously absorbing and dominating it; the second withdrew into itself and its condition of exclusion and domination.  How could the long and terrible history of the hatred of the Jew, masking a self-loathing, be generated by these intrinsically contradictory beginnings? That is the question to which this short book gives an answer.

Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn (Doubleday Books)
Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto

Grasp takes readers across multiple frontiers, from fundamental neuroscience to cognitive psychology and beyond, as it explores the future of learning. Along the way, Sanjay Sarma debunks long-held fallacies (such as the idea of “learning styles”), while equipping readers with a set of practical tools for absorbing and retaining information across a lifetime. He presents a vision for learning that’s more inclusive and democratic—revealing a world bursting with powerful learners, just waiting for the chance they deserve. Drawing from the author’s experience as an educator and the work of researchers and educational innovators, Grasp offers scientific and practical insight. 

Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture
(Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Michael P. Lynch

Taking stock of our fragmented political landscape, Michael P. Lynch delivers a trenchant philosophical take on digital culture and its tendency to make us into dogmatic know-it-alls. Interweaving the works of classic philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Bertrand Russell and imposing them on a cybernetic future they could not have possibly even imagined, Lynch delves deeply into three core ideas that explain how we’ve gotten to the way we are: our natural tendency to be overconfident in our knowledge; the tribal politics that feed off our tendency; and the way the outrage factory of social media spreads those politics of arrogance and blind conviction. In addition, Lynch offers practical solutions for how we might start reversing this dangerous trend. Ultimately, Know-It-All Society makes a powerful argument for the value of truth and humility in democracy.

On Seamus Heaney (Princeton University Press)
Roy Foster

In On Seamus Heaney, leading Irish historian and literary critic R. F. Foster gives an incisive and eloquent account of the poet and his work against the background of a changing Ireland. Drawing on unpublished drafts and correspondence, Foster provides illuminating and personal interpretations of Heaney’s work. Above all, Foster examines how Heaney created an extraordinary connection with an exceptionally wide readership, giving him an authority and power unique among contemporary writers. Combining a vivid account of Heaney’s life and a compelling reading of his entire oeuvre, On Seamus Heaney extends our understanding of the man as it enriches our appreciation of his poetry.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe (Crown Publishing Group)
Sara Seager

In this memoir, an MIT astrophysicist must reinvent herself in the wake of tragedy and discovers the power of connection on this planet, even as she searches our galaxy for another Earth. Sara Seager has always been in love with the stars. Now a pioneering planetary scientist, she searches for exoplanets. But with the unexpected death of Seager’s husband, the purpose of her own life becomes hard for her to see. Suddenly, at forty, she is a widow and the single mother of two young boys. For the first time, she feels alone in the universe. As she struggles to navigate her life after loss, Seager takes solace in the alien beauty of exoplanets and the technical challenges of exploration. At the same time, she discovers earthbound connections that feel every bit as wondrous. Probing and honest, The Smallest Lights in the Universe is its own kind of light in the dark.

Trans America: A Counter-History (Polity Press)
Barry Reay 

Trans seems to be everywhere in American culture. Yet there is little understanding of how this came about. Barry Reay explores this history: from a time before trans in the nineteenth century to the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s, the transgender turn of the 1990s, and the so-called tipping point of current culture. It is a rich and varied history, where same-sex desires and identities, cross-dressing, and transsexual and transgender identities jostled for recognition. It is a history that is not at all flattering to US psychiatric and surgical practices.

The Virus in the Age of Madness (Yale University Press)
Bernard-Henri Lévy

In this extended essay, Bernard-Henri Lévy examines the phenomenon of a global pandemic in the digital age. Drawing on a range of thinkers including Plato and Foucault, Lacan and Girard, Camus and Sartre, Lévy asks profound and uncomfortable questions about the realities and mythologies that have emerged during this crisis. With incisive analysis and linguistic flourish, Lévy takes a bird’s-eye view of the most consequential historical event of our time, and proposes a way to defend human society from contemporary threats to our social and economic future. 

Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration (Penguin Press)
Christine Montross

Waiting for an Echo is a riveting, rarely seen glimpse into American incarceration. Dr. Christine Montross’s expertise–the mind in crisis–allowed her to reckon with the human stories behind the bars. In her encounters with prisoners and staff, Montross finds that while our system of correction routinely makes people with mental illness worse, it just as routinely renders mentally stable people psychiatrically unwell. According to this book, our methods of incarceration take away not only freedom but also selfhood and soundness of mind. In a nation where 95 percent of all inmates are released from prison and return to our communities, this is a practice that punishes us all.

Zora and Langston (W. W. Norton & Company)
Yuval Taylor 

Novelist Zora Neale Hurston and poet Langston Hughes, two of America’s greatest writers, first met in New York City in 1925. Drawn to each other, they helped launch a radical journal, Fire!! Later, meeting by accident in Alabama, they became close as they traveled together—Hurston interviewing African Americans for folk stories, Hughes getting his first taste of the deep South. By illuminating their lives, work, competitiveness, and ambitions, Yuval Taylor savvily details how their friendship and literary collaborations dead-ended in acrimonious accusations.

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