What are you reading? – 20 April 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

April 20, 2017
Students sitting at a table alongside a pile of books
Source: iStock

Devorah Baum, lecturer in English literature, University of Southampton, is reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (Random House, 2004). “Recently, a line by the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas keeps coming back to me: ‘Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war?’ That thought lurks behind my recent decision to reread The Plot Against America. I’m doing so because I’m keen to teach it. But also because Roth could investigate America’s not-so-distant past and recognise within it the historical possibility of a media celebrity becoming the Grand Old Party nominee followed by an ‘America First’ president – a counter-history, when I first read the book, that I didn’t take seriously. Now, with Levinas’ terrifying sense of lucidity in mind, Roth’s novel seems the right place to look to parse the unsettling momentum of current events. So why am I reading it? I guess it’s to remind myself what happens next!”

Luke Brunning, British Academy junior research fellow in the faculty of philosophy, University of Oxford, is reading Avishai Margalit’s On Betrayal (Harvard University Press, 2017). “In a book animated with cultural memories and literary insight, Avishai Margalit offers a richly ambivalent account of betrayal. In charting betrayal’s complex and contested character, and its tight links to treachery, collaboration and apostasy, he argues that betrayal is a personal ethical matter, not an impartial moral concern. Betrayal simultaneously requires, and erodes, the thick, binding relations that constitute families, friends and groups. In remaining loyal to the complexity of his terrain, Margalit ends with the sanguine possibility that betrayal might be unavoidable. Although treachery and apostasy are less resonant in a more impartial age, most lives are awash with multiple roles, affections and values. Betrayal might be the price for the kind of privacy few would abandon.”

Gavin Moodie, adjunct professor of education, University of Toronto, is reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin, 2003) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Vintage, 2015). “These two classic novels are both set in the antebellum US and are interesting in their portrayal of how support for slavery was central to the solidarity of white Southern society. In Huckleberry Finn, originally published in 1884, the hero talks about reporting runaway slaves in terms similar to those used by some contemporaries about reporting ‘suspicious’ activities by Muslims. In both cases, failure to report is understood as a betrayal of values that are considered to be vital in maintaining the current order. Yet these books also reflect a deep if unrecognised doubt about the values they seek to advance. Such heavy issues, however, should not daunt unfamiliar readers. The two novels are both a lot of fun – and it is easy to skip their ponderous moralising.”

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