For some reason, Summer 2013 has been good for reading. I spent less time on the facebook and twitter feeds and more time with my Kindle or actual physical books.
In this post, purely for personal reasons, I attempt to list all the books I spent time reading or I finished reading from after graduation in May to just before the start of school in August, 2013. In lieu of proper bibliographic information, I’ve included an Amazon.com link for each book.
Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008).
This book should be required reading for students of religion in America. Sharlet tells a story almost nobody seems to know, about a small group of fundamentalist Christian elites who have built a secretive international network of men holding power in government, finance, and industry. If you don’t know the names Abram Vereide or Doug Coe, you may not actually know much about religion in America since 1935. Sharlet is a fine stylist, a dogged and personally invested reporter, and tells this compelling story with a (mostly) even hand. Reading Status: COMPLETED, mid-May 2013.
Jeff Sharlet, C-Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (Harper, 2011).
This is a follow-up to The Family, beginning with the Obama-era scandal that almost brought “the Fellowship” (or “the Family”) into the public eye, after a series of highly public sex-scandals brought down Family-affiliated politicians (most famously, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who, at the time of the publication of the book, was still living in disgrace). These men had all sought refuge and counseling at the Family’s Fundamentalist-elite Hostel (C-Street house), the story of which provides the central axis or springboard for this study. Besides detailing the exploits of randy Christian congressmen, Sharlet revisits the history of the Family (mostly overlapping with the previous book), offers a look at the growth and origins of the family’s influence in Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy and the United States Military (both sections of the book draw on previous articles in Harper’s), and in the Christian-inflected homophobia of Ugandan politics. Some of this material seems redundant, if you’ve followed Sharlet’s work, but here it is updated and revised. Taken together as a block, Sharlet offers a frightening and sobering look at how “the Idea” distorts democratic institutions in the US and around the world. Once again, you don’t understand Fundamentalism in American life if all you see is Bob Jones, Liberty University and Joel Osteen. The true story is much deeper and more frightening. STATUS: completed as of late May 2013.
Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2001).
Like other Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” titles, Scruton’s book on Kant lives up to at least some part of the promise of its title. It is about Kant, and it is Short. I read this book hoping it would help me understand Kant better, the better to grasp the philosophical background of the American philosophical tradition, which has, historically, been deeply impacted by Kant. I’m not sure the book met my goals, but it did provide me with a fairly level-headed approach to beginning study of Kant himself. Scruton doesn’t conceal the fact that Kant can be very obscure, that scholars can disagree on his meaning, and that Scruton’s own interpretations do not always represent even the majority view. I truly appreciate his humility, which provides some cooling comfort to beginning scholars who have realized that the study of Immanuel Kant involves one in complex, technical and deeply difficult reading. On the other hand, by approaching Kant topically rather than textually and historically, by minimizing detailed interaction with the interpretive tradition, and by minimizing technical language, Scruton fails to meet the needs of a reader who wishes to transition from beginning- to intermediate-level study of Kant himself. STATUS: completed as of early June, 2013.
Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Basic Books, 2006).
I read this book at the recommendation of my colleague John Gripentrog (professor of History at Mars Hill College), and I loved every minute of it. Larson usefully revises the myth and legend of the Scopes trial to bring out the humanity and complexity of the event and its participants. Everything is sourced back to the contemporary press, court records, and personal papers of the major figures involved in the Scopes Trial. Larson’s account brings to life 1925 Dayton, Tennessee, and America in a fresh and illuminating way. Then, adding historiography to history, he traces the subsequent legendary and literary re-imaginations of the Scopes trial. Thus, Larson’s account both clarifies the story of what happened and demonstrates that, for decades, the Scopes trial and its meaning have been misrepresented and misappropriated in all corners of the political grid. In the process, Larson opens another way of assessing what “the trial of the century” might mean for our society today. The story of the trial and its aftermath should draw our attention directly to the difficult and unresolved epistemological questions — questions with political (and scientific and religious) implications — that structure the conflicts of contemporary American life. STATUS: completed as of early June, 2013.
Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Belknap Press, 2012).
Another recommendation from my colleague John Gripentrog, this book attempts to do one of the most difficult things in all historiography: give a definitive name to a period of time. The time-period in question is the last quarter of the 20th century in America, and the proposed name is “Age of Fracture.” Rodgers is concerned to trace the development of capital-I “IDEAS” in American Culture and Politics. He attempts to show how the dominant discourse of American politics shifted from the mid-20th century Idea of “Society” as a unified democratic whole to a more individualistic, late 20th century Idea of society as a fractured aggregate of competing interests. For intellectuals of a certain age (such as, mid-40’s), this book will be a revelation. The history it tells is the history of the ideas we ‘discovered’ as we went through college and graduate school. It is incredibly rich, offering a discussion of impressive breadth and depth. I found it to be relatively convincing in its account of the “fracturing” and atomization characteristic of the era, and at every step of the way, deeply informative. I would recommend it, and would myself read it again if I could find the time. STATUS: completed reading in late June, 2013.
George R. R. Martin, A Feast For Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 4) (Bantam, 2007).
What can I say? I read the first three books, and, after taking a break, I needed to re-enter the world of lushly described sensual delights, unfathomable violence, and menacing doom. “Winter is coming” makes good summer reading. Personally, I was a bit disappointed to discover that, at the end of this epic tale, Martin steps forward as author, pushes narrator aside, and explains that he couldn’t finish the story in just one volume. My plan was to read only one volume of “the Song,” but it was just too easy to purchase the next volume on the kindle. STATUS: began it in early June, 2013, finished early July, 2013.
George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5) (Bantam, 2011).
I devoured this one, and it displaced everything else on my list for a number of weeks. A great read, even if the “end” is no end at all. What will become of Starks, Lannisters, Martells, Freys Boltons, and all the rest? The five volumes, and 4200 pages of this epic, don’t answer that question. STATUS: completed as of mid-Aug, 2013.
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One: A Novel (Broadway Books, 2012).
I can’t quite express how awesome this book is! I devoured it in three days, and ended by stealing sleep and time away from family to do so. For a computer nerd, video-game enthusiast, television watching gen-Xer like me, male, aged 44, born 1969, this book is an amazing trip through pop-Geek-culture memory lane. Such a great read. STATUS: complete as of mid-August, 2013.
James Joyce, Ulysses (Wordsworth Editions, reprint 2010).
There is obviously no need to justify wanting to read Ulysses, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the most difficult books ever written in the English language. This one is going slow. Not sure if I’ll actually get through it or not. Oh well? I am trying. STATUS: began it in early May, 2013.