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by John Wilson


Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

And other good books (including audio books) from 2007.

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The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who has resided in England for some years, has given us the best stocking–stuffer of 2007: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (Basic Books). Each question is keyed to a particular philosopher (so, for instance, Augustine is the point of reference for "God and Man: What is evil?"), ranging from Socrates to Husserl. An author's note explains that in the Polish text, there were thirty questions, thirty philosophers, but "publishers are cruel beasts, and they demanded a selection." The copyright page indicates that the Polish version was published in three volumes in successive years (2004, 2005, 2006), from which I infer that each volume in Polish featured ten questions, ten philosophers. I wish that the American publisher had followed suit, but I'd much rather have this book as it is than no English translation at all, which is the fate of most good books published in other languages. If you like Polish posters of the postwar era, you will enjoy Kolakowski's sardonic style.

Every year, in addition to new books, there are reissues, new editions, and so on. Even as reports on the decline in reading continue to mount up—most recently, Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" from The New Yorker—we enjoy AT THIS MOMENT an extraordinary bounty. For me, the single most delightful reissue of 2007 was the handsome Library of America volume Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s, edited by Jonathan Lethem, the likes of which I never expected to see, not in my wildest PKD–inspired dreams. Imagine my delight when I learned recently that a second LOA volume is planned: Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, also edited by Jonathan Lethem, with a current pub date (according to Amazon) of July 31, 2008. Of the five book in this new selection—Martian Time Slip; Dr. Bloodmoney; Now Wait for Last Year; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; and A Scanner Darkly—I would omit Dr. Bloodmoney and A Scanner Darkly and put two others in their place. Question for PKD readers: what five titles would you include in this second volume, if you were the editor?

Another particularly welcome reissue was Russell Fraser's Shakespeare: A Life in Art (Transaction), which combines in a single volume Fraser's two biographical/critical volumes published some years ago by Columbia University Press, with the bonus of a substantial new introduction. Fraser is one of the finest and most subtle literary intelligences of the past half–century. (And speaking of Shakespeare, keep an eye out in Books & Culture for a two–part essay–review by Peter Leithart, coming soon.)

Last week I mentioned some audio books worth listening to, all fiction. Here are several in nonfiction to add to the list:

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (Recorded Books). Danticat was born in Haiti, and came to the United States when she was twelve years old (her parents had emigrated some years earlier). She's a prizewinning writer of fiction, but here she turns to family history. It's a heart–rending book, and one that's most powerful heard rather than read silently.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson (Hachette). Usually I avoid abridged books—all the other audio books I have listed are unabridged—but I made an exception in the case of this riveting narrative of an operation in Afghanistan that went badly awry.

Peeling the Onion, by Gunter Grass. When this memoir by the Nobel Prize–winning writer was published in Germany, it aroused considerable controversy. Grass revealed that as a teenager he had briefly served in the Waffen SS. Why hadn't Grass—an outspoken critic of German militarism—acknowledged this earlier? The best way to answer that question is to read the book, the interest of which is by no means limited to this controversy.

By the way, thinking of things military, one of the most interesting books of the year was Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), from which we get a picture of contemporary soldiers and their moral life that differs radically from many accounts. (A review is forthcoming in B&C.)

Merry Christmas!

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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