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What We’re Loving: ABCs, Akrasia, Antiquity

August 23, 2013 | by

Confronting

“Loving you isn’t the right thing to do / How can I ever change the things that I feel?“ This sentiment—so memorably expressed by Fleetwood Mac in 1977—is as old as philosophy itself. The ancients struggled to explain akrasia, or why we love and do certain things against our better judgment. Who’s in charge of our desires? As the NYU philosopher Jessica Moss points out in this Q&A, the latest psychological research can sound a lot like Aristotle’s Ethics. —Lorin Stein

I found the cover of Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics—the torso of a marble Adonis that, at a cursory glance, looks sort of like an Abercrombie and Fitch bagso off-putting that I took it off. (The British iteration, which features a bust of Athena in a pair of red sunglasses, is hardly more dignified.) But I understand that the publisher was grappling with the very same issue Beard, an eminent classicist, addresses in this book: how to engage with the classical tradition in a modern world. The book is both a survey of classical antiquity and a compelling argument for the classics’ contemporary relevance; Beard bridles at those who champion the canon from a romanticized or ideological standpoint. Anyone who has read Beard’s work in The New York Review of Books knows how funny and passionate a writer she is, and how convincing. (You can only imagine how much fun her Cambridge classes must be.) In her hands, the classics really do argue for themselves. So does this book. Sexy cover not required. —Sadie O. Stein

Last week I went with my family to “The ABC of It,” an exhibition of children’s books at the New York Public Library. The oldest relic on display was an early eighteenth-century copy of “The New England Primer,” in which A stands for Adam and B is for Bible. All the famous books are here, from Hans Christian Andersen to Goodnight Moon (with a life-size replica of the Great Green Room), but there are some wonderful curiosities as well. My favorite was a book from the early Soviet era—when utopianism wasn’t dead yet—in which a robot guides a young boy through one of the new, futuristic, state-run factories. There’s also an exhibit of Struwwelpeter, the most terrifying children’s book I’ve ever read, which suggests that it was intended as a parody (ah, German humor!). My daughter, who is still working on her ABCs, lasted about forty-five minutes, but I could have lingered for hours. —Robyn Creswell

Yesterday I reread Cœur de Lion, a book-length epistolary love poem by Ariana Reines. This little book was self-published in 2007 (and later by Fence Books), between Reines’s two other books of poems: The Cow (2006) and Mercury (2011), both of which seem to have received considerably more ink from reviewers. I first sat down to read Cœur de Lion with no knowledge of Reines’s work, but I inhaled the poem, and return to it often. It’s obscenely elegant and elegantly obscene, and its realm of resonances is vast. Cœur de Lion, while a “love poem,” dips in and out of love—between direct address of a lover and the contemplation of poetic address itself. Midway through the poem, Reines writes, “For words on a page / To have power/ I had to be close / I had to be close”—just as the reader of Cœur de Lion must (and will) be. —Kate Rouhandeh

Unable to sleep the other night, I reached for A Girl in Winter, and ended up rereading the whole thing. (It is slim.) Philip Larkin’s novel of wartime England is characteristically restrained and bracingly stoic, but conveys loneliness better than almost anything I have ever read. His protagonists crave human connection, but don’t really expect love; whatever happens, you understand that they’ll be essentially alone–and that it’s okay. People say the book is sad, but, to me, it’s never tragic. “Yet their passage was not saddening. Unsatisfied dreams rose and fell about them, crying out against their implacability, but in the end glad that such order, such destiny, existed. Against this knowledge, the heart, the will, and all that made for protest, could at last sleep.” —S.O.S.

 

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