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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


• "Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity," implored Ralph Waldo Emerson in an impolite address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1837. In one of the new volumes commemorating Emerson's 200th birthday, says John Updike in the New Yorker, this famous address is taken as an illustration of Emerson's deep–seated distaste for the Boston establishment, which he saw as steeped in sterile Unitarianism. Emerson was "a disbeliever in 'foolish consistency,' " Updike writes, and uttered the above anti–conformity credo after a devastating critique of the Church. But Updike's profile suggests Emerson's contempt was more cheerful than caustic, less a personal vendetta against his alma mater than a pursuit of—in Updike's words—"spontaneity over convention, vitality over formality, luck and newness over system." This makes it easier to appreciate Emerson even when he wandered into the nebulous environs of existentialism, worshipping "sublime thoughts" and "the active soul," waiting for "the huge world [to] come round." Full story

• Brash and brilliant, Malcolm Muggeridge led a "lifelong campaign against high–minded earnestness," writes Roger Kimball in an illuminating profile in the New Criterion. Although Muggeridge's 100th birthday this year has drawn a spurt of renewed interest in him (helped along by the reissue of Gregory Wolfe's nuanced biography, reviewed here by Christopher Hitchens), Kimball doubts it will last, and says that's too bad. "Muggeridge is a tonic force, well worth resuscitating. He could be crankish. … [But] often he was incandescently perceptive. Above all he provided an intelligent admonitory voice, a voice against the grain of received opinion, urging caution, broadcasting unwelcome truths, nudging his interlocutors beyond the warm circle of their self–absorption." Full story The profile seems to validate Muggeridge's stated ambition, as quoted in Christianity Today. "I should like my light to shine, even if only very fitfully, like a match struck in a dark, cavernous night and then flickering out."
Earlier in this weblog: Roger Kimball on Juvenal, the Roman satirist (fourth item here)

• Even before I came upon these two well–written profiles, I'd been doing some thinking about contrarians and conventional wisdom. Why is it so natural for us to admire the attitudes (if not all of the ideas) of Emerson and Muggeridge? We cheer on Emerson as he tells off his stuffy Harvard audience and Muggeridge as he belittles fatuous British politicians, even though most of us would never dream of doing so ourselves (publicly, anyway). We love our prophets for telling it like it is and turning propriety on its head. What was Christ if not the ultimate contrarian? ("You have heard … but I tell you … ") And yet my admiration is tempered by my distrust of the self–righteousness that consistent contrarianism seems to require. What kind of auto–centric universe must you live in to constantly declare, "I know better than everyone else!" Maybe it's the Calvinist in me, paralyzed by the awareness of my own brokenness, or my Midwestern predilection for modesty over mouthiness. Although we may observe too much conformity, convention, and comfort in modern society—among Christians as much as anyone, despite our supposed status as "strangers in a strange land"—we are equally repelled by the posturing prophets, the easy–answer televangelists, the know–it–all talk show hosts, and the self–absorbed artists of our day. Emerson and Muggeridge were easiest to love when they were restless for truth—hard–earned truth—more than self–promotion, when their contrarian impulses stemmed not from superiority complexes but from sheer dread of the ways humans perpetuate complacency when they organize.


From the Washington Post

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Wajih Ibrahim reveled in the smorgasbord of games before him: He shot miniature basketballs through a hoop, dashed to a nearby video game, then darted to the football table. "I've never been able to go to a place like this to have fun," the boisterous 12–year–old Palestinian gushed during a pause in his manic romp through the kiddie land of the first Western–style shopping mall in the Palestinian territories. … By American standards, the two–level Plaza shopping center that opened last month on the dusty edge of Ramallah's commercial district is modest, at best. By Palestinian measures, it is revolutionary—an oasis of civility and modernity in a desert of violence, economic devastation and psychological gloom. Full story

ANNISTON, Ala. — The Army plans to start destroying Cold War–era chemical weapons [this month] at its Anniston incinerator, the first time the military will burn the deadly munitions near a populated area. … The Army plans only "limited burns" on weekends and between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays until schools and other community buildings near the incinerator are provided with safety pressurization this fall. During this time, the nerve agent GB will be drained from M–55 rockets and destroyed. … After [the announcement], Sharon McConathy took her granddaughter to pick up safety gear being provided to thousands of Anniston–area people—protective hoods that resemble gas masks and plastic sheeting for sealing a room in her mobile home in the event of an accident. "It's real scary," McConathy said. "I think they're putting everybody at risk." Full story

Virginia became one of the most popular places in the nation for the elderly to move in the 1990s, and Florida attracted fewer retirees for the first time in decades, according to a Census Bureau report … A broad reshuffling of the top retirement destinations means that a growing number of older people are moving to the Southwest and a swath of mild–weather Atlantic Coast states that include Virginia and Delaware. Florida still gained far more new elderly residents than any other state, but it drew fewer in the late 1990s than in the late 1980s. So did Oregon and Washington state, which were 1980s hot spots. … Today's retirees are becoming less predictable … They are moving to a wider array of states, so they are not as concentrated in traditional destinations. Full story


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Rodney Stark makes dubious links between Western progress and Christianity, says the Washington Post.

Einstein and Poincare: two mappers of space and time, from the New York Times.*

Simple critique of simple–mindedness and modern myths, from the London Guardian.

'Brown Britain': London through black and Asian eyes, from the London Guardian.

Entertaining and insightful tour of Mexico, from the New York Times.*

Functional survey of European mythology, from the Washington Post.

New view of Kafka in biography of his last lover, from the Boston Globe.

Seamless biography reveals complicated woman and Cold War spy, says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Journalist goes undercover with Paris–based friends of Al Qaeda, from the London Guardian.

The allure and intimidation of spelunking, from the New York Times.*

Unsparing profile of Providence ex–mayor's corruption, from the NYT.

Wit and wisdom of James Thurber abundant in collection, from the NYT.

Garrison Keillor lampoons literary life in funniest novel yet, says the Washington Post (excerpt).

Anachronisms mar new Edmund White historical novel, says the Times Literary Supplement.

Historical novel highlights the ambiguous role of free black plantation owners, from the Christian Science Monitor.

Restrained but captivating novel follows troubled family in Wisconsin orchard, from the Washington Post.

Fresh storytelling in familiar genre of Holocaust fiction, from the New York Times.*

Poet peers at modern technology in elegiac collection, says the NYT.

Fiction in brief from the New York Times*

Books in brief from the Washington Post

• Recommendations from the NYT and San Francisco Chronicle

July book blog

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant atBooks & Culture.

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