A good rule of thumb is that literature about current events is terrible. I have, however, come across two recent exceptions to this general rule. The first is James Matthew Wilson’s “Quarantine Notebook,” which has now been completed. The second is Eugene Vodolazkin’s Sister of the Four, a two-act play. Like his novel The Aviator, it is a profound (and humorous) meditation on memory, death, news media, and quotidian beauty. As one character muses, “Maybe that’s why diseases exist, to make us think about what kind of people we are.” Another replies: “And to make us hear the truth.”
“On Taking Sides with Ivan Illich.” David Cayley continues the conversation about Illich and COVID-19 over at Solidarity Hall. He echo’s Illich’s call for a re-mapping of our political order given that the current left vs. right grid obscures the more important dimensions of our political life. But because this partisan dichotomy has captured our common imagination, Cayley finds it almost impossible to have real discussions about what should be done in response to the virus:
Expressing worry about the impairment of civil liberty brought to mind images of armed demonstrators besieging the Michigan legislature. Concerns about the devastation of local businesses suggested that I must be privileging “the Economy” ahead of “saving lives.” Questions about the rationale for lockdown were easily recognized as anti-science. Every critical thought was undone by its resemblance to some enemy stereotype.
“American Conservatism: An ‘Intellectual Tradition Worthy of Respect and Consideration.’” The Library of America interviews Andrew J. Bacevich about the choices he made in compiling a thick volume of the best conservative writing in America from 1900 to the present. When asked which piece makes a good introduction to readers who might not consider themselves to be conservative, Bacevich replied, “I’d tell them to read my introduction! Seriously, if someone takes the time to read my introduction and still says, ‘Nah, not for me,’ then what follows is probably not for them. But if that person says, ‘Okay, now show me,’ I’d suggest starting with one of the essays that take aim at the soullessness of the modern capitalist order—Lasch, perhaps, or Robert Nisbet or Patrick Deneen.”
“Sourdough and the Spiritual Discipline of Pace.” Timothy Willard reflects on the spiritual lessons he’s learned from baking bread through a slower, more laborious process. (Recommended by Bill Marsh.)
“Crossing Flatwater.” In a lovely essay, Matt Miller ponders his Nebraskan homeland, the 2019 floods, and the meaning of drosscapes.
“Against Projection; For Promise.” Alan Jacobs draws on Wendell Berry’s “Standing by Words” to suggest that the thought-leaders who revel in making bold projections should instead make promises to which they will be held responsible.
“‘When Freedom Came, God Disappeared.’” Anthony O’Hear puts Roger Scruton’s libretto An Angel Passes in the context of his decades-long concern with communism, what replaced it, and God. The opera “deals with the dilemma faced by those who had stood out against Communism but are now largely disappointed by the materialistic capitalism which replaced it. The liberation itself, and the new cost-benefit mentality which accompanies it, turn out to be yet another way of denying the deepest yearnings of the soul; yearnings which, under communism, had often found expression in religious thought and practice.”
“Joe Rogan Is the New Mainstream Media.” Bari Weiss considers what Rogan’s new multi-million dollar deal with Spotify says about our media landscape. It’s not encouraging:
If you want to understand why podcasting is killing, he says, you first need to appreciate the world-changing, brain-rewiring transformation in how we consume information. Reading or watching the news is no longer immersive, as it was when you sat down with a bunch of papers or in front of a living room TV. Now it is a fragmented experience, usually done on a cellphone. “The problem,” he told me, “is that the cellphone also has YouTube videos of the craziest things ever — babies landing on cats and animal attacks and naked people.” Why would you read a 2,000-word story about the collapse of health care in Venezuela when you can zone out with some TikToks?
“What About the Rotten Culture of the Rich?” Chris Arnade eviscerates Wall Street’s culture of “destructive individualism”: “Why toil away at growing food, or building roads, or building bridges, when you can get rich quick by sitting in front of a wall of computers betting on flashing numbers?”
“Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts the unfolding events in Minneapolis in a broader context: “This simultaneous collapse of politics and governance has forced people to take to the streets — to the detriment of their health and the health of others — to demand the most basic necessities of life, including the right to be free of police harassment or murder.”
“We Don’t Know What’s Behind the COVID-19 Racial Disparity. And That’s a Problem.” Graeme Wood reminds us that the coronavirus and its effects remain mysterious:
Why did the area around Milan get hit harder than almost anywhere on Earth, while Rome was spared? Why has Tokyo—which is densely populated, filled with old people, reliant on packed subways, and never fully shut down—not been crushed by the disease? Why do some places, when they relax their social-distancing restrictions, see case numbers rise, while Denmark, after thawing its economy, still has so few cases that its health authorities express open bafflement about their good luck?
“The Impulse to Garden in Hard Times has Deep Roots.” Jennifer Atkinson compares today’s garden boom with past seasons of renewed interest in gardening: “If the novel coronavirus underscores an age of distancing, gardening arises as an antidote, extending the promise of contact with something real.”
“Farms May Depend on Water—But They are also Polluting It.” Nathan Beacom describes the ongoing problem of toxic farm runoff polluting drink water supplies.
“Not Your Daddy’s Classical Liberalism.” Francis J. Beckwith reminds us that the American founders envisioned a robust role for the government in helping citizens pursue the common good.
“Engaging the Catholic Imagination.” Jessica Hooten Wilson reviews Nick Ripatrazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction and surveys this rich field of faith and art.
“Reclaiming the Stories that Algorithms Tell.” David G. Robinson weighs the costs and benefits of algorithms and asks some hard questions about how we use them: “When and why is this algorithmic bargain of simplification and standardization really worth its cost? How can those costs be minimized? If we have to choose between mechanical and personal stories, how should that be done—mechanically, with numerical pros and cons, or personally, with a holistic sense of what’s best in a situation?”