To mark the publication of J. Peder Zane's new book, "Off the Books: On Literature and Culture," we'll be posting an essay from it each day.
By J. Peder Zane
The sun was sitting high in the sky and I was near a shady tree as my kids splashed in the pool. Life is good.
Then I picked up the paper: bombings in Syria, genocide in Kenya, massacres in Iraq.
I looked back at my children, smiled, then marveled at the mind's capacity to take in all the information of the world and then judge our well-being by what's in front of our noses. It's the same thought I have whenever my wife and I discuss our pressing need to add another room to our fairly spacious home, or when I conclude that I really do need a new DVD player or component for my stereo system. I know that there are people in far-flung spots consigned to circumstances so abject they are almost beyond imagining. And yet my desires don't fade—and still I feel good about myself, still consider myself a good person.
This dynamic is particularly troubling for us book-lovers. Besides being a great source of pleasure, books are our primary gateway to other lives and cultures. If books serve a larger purpose, it is their power to brake our god-given selfishness. Nature primes us to look out for ourselves; few of us require help in that regard. What most of us need are constant reminders to consider everyone else, to imagine their needs, hopes, desires and circumstances.
Personal experience has convinced me that books are both the greatest tool for empathy we have created and totally inadequate to the task. Some of the best-read people I know are among the nastiest and most selfish individuals I've never wanted to know. Read more ...
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“Jonathan Lethem’s extraordinary career is a reminder of the not-so-distant past when working novelists published their new creations regularly and with a seemingly free-flowing hand,” Michael Greenberg writes in the New York Times Book Review. “If one book wasn’t up to snuff, there would be another to redeem it a year or two later. It was all part of the ebb and flow of a lifetime of work.
“During her long and distinguished career, Joyce Carol Oates never has shied away from the controversy that can come with using celebrities and tabloid news stories as the inspiration for her fiction,” Jon Michaud observes in the Washington Post.