Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other night, my wife and many of her Facebook ‘friends’ had a back and forth about a link she shared.  The bone of contention was one of those ubiquitous internet ‘lists’. You know the kind.  ‘The 50 best cat memes’, or the ’36 best Presidents’, or, in this case, the ’32 Books that will change your life’.

What is it about the internet’s insatiable love of lists?  In the realm of book lists alone, anonymous internet patrons proclaim what ‘books to read before you die’; or which ‘books you need to read before 30’; or simply, ‘The Greatest Books of All Time”.  At the very least, these lists spark discussion, as proven by the good-natured argument had by my wife and her social media buds about this particular ‘Buzzfeed’ biblio-litany.  Most of their discussion centered upon what books should be on the list, and what books didn’t deserve such praiseworthy recognition.  Each participant added his or her own ‘how could this book be missing from such a list’ selection.

I, myself, had another query after glancing at the list in question.  Why, oh why, do such lists focus so exclusively upon that most recent literary invention, appropriately termed the novel?  Where are the books that will change your life not in the novelistic form?  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel as much as the next bibliophile, but why do these lists ignore any mention of other types of books? If we are talking about books that ‘change your life’, or you ‘should read before you die’, shouldn’t there be at least the hint of philosophy?  Of Religion?  Perhaps, even the-republichistory?

Well, have no fear.  I will solve this list shortage with yet another list.   Here is just a sampling of works,  none novels, that should be read before you die; or that should be read before you 61Kvp0zgD6Lare 40; or that can change your life. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, and/or tell me what I missed.

  • The Republic by Plato – This may seem daunting, but most every argument crucial to Western philosophy gets it start right here.  Politics, morality, religion, social structure?  It’s all in there.
  • The Bible –  To understand our world, and the viewpoints of so many, read it from cover to cover.  Sure, there are moments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that can get a bit long, but you can make it.federalist
  • The Works of Mencius – You may be saying to yourself ‘who’, not recognizing the name of one of the great Ancient Chinese philosophers. But, if you pick up his works, you will find an incredibly warm, and positive investigation of human nature.
  • 9781844678761_Communist-manifesto (1)Japanese Love Poems of the 10th Century – Again, this sounds arcane, but the poetry written during Japan’s Heien era is some of the most straightforwardly beautiful poetry around.  It is easy to fall in love with, pun notwithstanding.
  • The Federalist by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – Want to understand American politics? Here is where you need to start.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels – See what all the fuss is about.
  • download (2)Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin – Specifically, book lovers should check out his “Unpacking My Library”. With_the_Old_Breed_(Eugene_B._Sledge_book_-_cover_art)Cultural critics should delve into his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for something a little less light.
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge –   Sledge’s classic understated chronicle of his experiences during the World War 2 in the Pacific will make you question if there can be such a thing as a “Good War”.
  • foot2The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – Still the standard introduction to art history.  Perfect for a college classroom, or for a relaxing read.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman – A groundbreaking work that combines the art of graphic novels with an Mausautobiographical memoir of the Holocaust.
  • 2943781Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom – Bloom is a Yale psychologist who studies infant behavior and development.  I think every page of this book had me shaking my head in amazement.  It opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s minds.

So, there you have it.  A quickly constructed list of highly recommended non-novels.

Now, go argue about it on Facebook.  Or, Tumblr.  Or, wherever.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Recently, a photographer named Lelage Snow began an incredible project.  Based in Kabul, Afghanistan, she photographed Scottish soldiers before, during, and after they had seen combat.  What she produced is astounding and haunting.  See here:

LalageSnow-Soldiers-06

This is Private Chris MacGregor, 24.  The rest of Snow’s work can be found here. There is no need to analyze these photos, as I think they speak for themselves the proverbial 1000 words (the eyes alone speak 900).  However, what does strike me is how almost a century ago the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, described what we see in these contemporary faces.  In his essay The Storyteller, Benjamin had this to say about veterans who returned from the cataclysmic First World War:

“With the First World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?  What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

A century on, the human body is still fragile.