What are you reading? – 21 September 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

September 21, 2017

Eliane Glaser, senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Bath Spa University, is reading A. C. Grayling’s Democracy and its Crisis (Oneworld, 2016). “In the new era of populism, Brexit and Trump, democracy is in trouble. It’s been hijacked by oligarchs, strongmen and right-wing lobbyists armed with big data. More troubling still, nobody seems to know what the word means any more: is democracy about MPs’ votes or referendums? Should sovereignty reside in Parliament or ‘the people’? As Grayling illustrates, debates about democracy have raged since Plato; but he rightly argues that representative democracy needs defending as never before. Not only, as Winston Churchill said, is it the least bad system of government, but it is a vital defence against demagoguery. I often encounter glib claims that representative democracy is ‘dead’; that the Westminster system is ‘broken’. These dangerous clichés gloss over the key question: is the problem the system itself or the powerful forces that have corrupted it?”

Randy Malamud, Regents’ professor of English at Georgia State University, is reading Christopher Schaberg’s Airportness: The Nature of Flight (Bloomsbury, 2017). “Schaberg has singlehandedly invented the rapidly ascending field of airport studies. He recalls and restores the ecstasy of aviation that flyers once enjoyed as he rambles through these compounds that ‘spread out into our lives’, becoming ‘test sites where many of our best and worst behaviors play out’. He finds generosity and civility, but also logistical knots that ‘overflow with spite, pettiness, impatience and acrimony’. ‘Airportness’ means ‘how the feel of air travel precedes and extends past the more obvious dimensions and boundaries of flight’. So Schaberg examines such phenomena as the excitement and sadness at kerbside (where ‘airportness gathers and congeals’); the discourse of boarding passes; the zen of waiting; the semiotics of the runway; the quidditas of the window seat; the fact of armrests (‘borders, but unclear ones’); the ‘incessant, mandatory’ ritual of snacking.”

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, is reading Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014). “Reeling from the sudden death of her father, Macdonald sets out to train a goshawk, notoriously the most difficult and cussed of raptors. This masochistic therapy takes her on an extraordinary and painful journey as she and the bird tentatively commune across a divide between human and feral, civilised and atavistic. At the same time, Macdonald explores the lonely, closeted life of schoolmaster and novelist T. H. White, whose The Goshawk (1951) recounts his failed attempt to brutalise a bird into submission. Macdonald’s is a book about grief, the churlish indifference of the natural world to human emotions and the solitude of failure, but it is also about a ‘return from this strange hedgerow ontology to more ordinary humanity’. It is heartbreaking and affirming at the same time.”

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