Our Books, Ourselves

Our Books, Ourselves

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“Simone de Beauvoir said ‘Books saved my life.’ I think that’s true for me,” announced Gloria Whelan in accepting her National Book Award recently for Homeless Bird (which won for Young People’s Literature). It was a refreshing zenith in the remarks that evening, and I suspect that what she said holds true for many of us–or that books save us from a certain type of life, anyway, one more arid and circumscribed than we’d prefer. They help us create who we are, in a kind of secular but still miraculous transubstantiation. And who we are–how we determine the nature of that–is a question you will find running like a highway stripe through the essays assembled here.

Are we dispassionate scientists or self-interested exploiters of the less fortunate, whether on the individual or state level? Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado reaches one conclusion, reviewer Greg Grandin another, slightly askew from Tierney. Does divorce cause long-term damage to children? Andrew Cherlin, some of whose own research has been used by others to support the idea that it does, has a less ominous view in discussing Judith Wallerstein’s conclusions. And what is the inescapable bias in reporting on each other, in any respect? Longtime Saul Bellow friend Richard Stern contemplates the question as spurred by James Atlas’s new bio of the Nobelist. Peter Schrag offers a variation on the theme while assessing Richard Ben Cramer’s life of American icon Joe DiMaggio. When told the hero worship “was always about us,” Schrag retorts, “Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about?”

Michelle Jensen begins her overview of Third Wave feminism and the Manifesta of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards by putting a different twist on the question, noting that, so far, works representing the Third Wave have been personal accounts too much about “us,” which leaves one thirsting for a theoretical grounding. And academic theory is invoked again, this time from the classics, Georgette Fleischer reports, in Judith Butler’s revisitation of the story of Antigone; she uses the tale to refract out–or perhaps in–a perspective for sexual “outsiders.” And through what sort of prism are we to filter a historian’s self-history? Paul Buhle considers Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s beginnings, innocent or otherwise.

Elsewhere in the issue, faith in the transformative prospects of the word may be most evident in Rimbaud’s conviction that his poetry would change the world, or in Orwell’s more blatantly political reporting, or in W.E.B. Du Bois’s double-header life as both political and literary powerhouse. Margaret Atwood and Eduardo Galeano, of course, have spent a lifetime tracing our silhouettes through language–as has Jules Feiffer with his pen and wry sense of paradox.

Last but not least, we come to the issue of who we are in a literal sense, here at The Nation. We take this opportunity to welcome Hillary Frey, who has joined our staff as assistant literary editor. She was formerly managing editor of Lingua Franca. We hope you enjoy the issue.

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