Last Week in Books: Toilets, Owls, Angels, Saints

“However, everything I have put down here is just my recent trash.”

Dear Reader,

I’ve been feeling down about the end of the world (the real one, not the magazine, which I hear is great, which I’ve been told everybody should subscribe to), and it’s hard to think of something to say. But I’m sure by the time I’m done writing this I’ll have come up with something. It’s as the poet Yi Sang said: “Every day I rot, and my rotting follows a path, and an alley miraculously opens inside this path.”

I’ve been doing this for a while and every week there’s one book I really want (as opposed to the generic avaricious way in which I want everything, all things), and this week it’s Yi Sang: Collected Works. Another week, forever ago, or perhaps in August, the one I really wanted was this darkly energetic object which Ben has not yet forgiven me for inviting into our lives, which Geoff Nicholson mentioned in his review of a new photography collection by one of its editors, and which I managed to snag for $12 on Alibris: 

This is what people used to do in 1990, I guess. Make catalogs. I think if I had come of age before the internet, I would have been good at this kind of thing. Curated lists of messed up shit, plus Nietzsche.

Wait, that’s what I’m already doing, isn’t it? Ha I just realized — when I saw this entry for Two Serious Ladies, specifically, is when it hit me.

That’s just like one of my too-long pullquotes! That’s nice to know — I mean, that I would have done all right in 1990.

Stay safe,

Dana

@danasnitzky @endworldreview



1. “The Disasters We’ve Become” by David O’Neill, Bookforum

David O’Neill speaks with Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, about the “sense of impending… retribution” that lurks in “the deep cellar of this country.”

[O’NEILL:] Baldwin’s quote about treating people “as the miracle they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become” gets referenced often, especially now. But it generally appears out of context. Can you fill in the details of what was happening when he wrote it?

[GLAUDE:] When he wrote those words, he was trying to grapple with the fact that they killed Martin Luther King Jr. The idea that they would kill an apostle of love. The bottom half of King’s face was blown off—for what? It’s an insight into this place, about the depth of its cruelty. What follows is really important: “This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans . . . a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves.” While he’s grappling with what they have done, he still understands that we are miracles as well.

2. “Four Poems” by Yi Sang, Bomb

Four perfect poems excerpted from Yi Sang: Collected Works

All I have here now is the stifling trash that came out of sweeping my vast room. Crows as big as suffocated doves once flew into my thunderbolt-infested room. The stronger crows tried to get out, but they caught the plague, and fell one by one. The room was purified, ready to explode. However, everything I have put down here is just my recent trash.

3. “How David Graeber Changed the Way We See Money” by Matthew Zeitlin, The New Republic

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4. “David Graeber, 1961–2020” by Astra Taylor, Molly Crabapple, Marshall Sahlins, Beka Economopoulos, and Melissa Flashman, et al., The New York Review of Books

The activist and anthropologist David Graeber passed away on September 2. Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a life-altering read for me, I cannot recommend it enough. The New York Review compiled mini-essays in memory of Graeber, and Matthew Zeitlin writes for The New Republic about Graeber’s legacy:

Graeber was a link not just between grassroots movements and the academic world, but between generations of leftist social movements. He was a veteran of the anti-globalization protests in the 1990s who helped start Occupy, one of the facilitators of a debtor movement that would influence the policy agendas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He was a supporter of the United Kingdom’s anti–tuition fee protests in 2010, which would be the seed of the Momentum movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance to the leadership of the Labour Party.

The question Debt sought to ask was one that seemed natural in the wake of a debt crisis that would claim millions of homes and thrust much of the industrialized world into first a sharp economic crisis, then a self-destructive series of austerity measures designed to stem the tide of sovereign debt.

What was debt? What was its history, where did it come from, and how did it take such a central role in our personal and economic lives? Why was our language of obligation and morality the same as the one used to describe our credit card bills? Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”?

5. “Body Meets Design” by Emily Watlington, The Baffler

Emily Watlington reviews two books on design: Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World and Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need.

Hendren and Costanza-Chock’s shared point is that the best solutions often come from the people most intimately familiar with the problems, not from tech-addled outsiders. Costanza-Chock recalls the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” begun in 2011 and intended to help the 2.5 billion people worldwide without access to safe and clean sanitation. Over the next seven years, the Gateses invested over $200 million while the World Bank and other development banks added a whopping $2.5 billion in financing to the pot. Rather than address the fact that the problem is primarily one of infrastructure and not individual toilets, or improve upon existing solutions within various communities—like widely used toilet buckets, in which human waste is covered in ash or wood chips and then composted into soil—eight grant recipients started from scratch in the contest’s first year. Out of the eight, Caltech claimed first place with an extraordinarily complicated and expensive toilet that produces a deadly chlorine gas.

6. “The Search for the World’s Largest Owl” by Rachel Love Nuwer, Undark

Rachel Love Nuwer reviews Jonathan Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, which seems surprisingly upbeat for a 2020 nature book. Like, the author’s field work seems to have paid off? The owls are doing better now, maybe? So, yeah, good work, owl guy. 

7. “Monstre Sacré: The Life and Times of Franklin E. Kameny” by Michael Nava, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Michael Nava reviews Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, a biography of Franklin E. Kameny, an early leader of the LGBTQ movement, the first openly gay person to appear before Congress, and a famously difficult man who died penniless and alone.

While we now think of privilege and entitlement as pernicious cornerstones of a culture where some lives are valued more than others, pre-Stonewall leaders of the gay rights movement were often men fully invested with both. For these men, denial of what they deemed was rightfully theirs by virtue of class, race, education, and merit because they were queer was irrational and intolerable; those personal grievances bloomed into a cultural revolution. That they were men of courage is undeniable; that they paid a tremendous price for their advocacy of homosexual rights equally so. That they were also complicated, self-righteous, controlling and unlikable, classist, and possibly racist and misogynistic is also true. Monstres sacrés, in the evocative French phrase (sacred monsters), they were at once valorous and appalling.

8. “From Angels & Saints” by Eliot Weinberger, Bomb

An excerpt from Eliot Weinberger’s Angels & Saints, a compendium of the two titular genuses. Redgarding the medieval Irish saint Columba, Weinberger informs us:

He saw a young monk reading a book by a river, and he told the young monk that his book would fall in the water, and it did.

He foretold the arrival of unexpected visitors, the reign of kings, the sudden appearance of whales in the sea, the future lives of children he met, and the outcome of battles.

He could see behind himself. He could proofread the copies of sacred books without looking at them. When he chanted, his voice sounded normal to those next to him, but could be heard a mile away.



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