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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Pragmatism, Professional Consultants, Pubic Crests

January 31, 2014 | by

Walter_Battiss_painting_"Wandering_Nude_1"

Walter Battiss, Wandering Nude 1, 1978, oil on canvas.

Pop quiz! Which American philosopher coined the following expressions: pluralism, time-line, healthy-minded, live option, stream of consciousness, and the bitch-goddess success. Hint: he counted among his most devoted students Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, and W.E.B. DuBois. Last hint, from a letter he wrote to his little brother Henry, in 1902: “You have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean).” If you guessed William James (correctly), you probably remember him as the main inventor of “pragmatism,” the can-do philosophy that professional philosophers love to hate. But as Robert D. Richardson shows in his 2006 biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, it is hard to imagine a livelier, more lovable mind. As a scientist, James did original work on everything from evolution to spiritualism. As a philosopher, he anticipated everyone from Bergson to Wittgenstein to Austin to Daniel Kahneman. As a person, James is the most appealing kind of genius, continually inspired by his family, by his friendships and romances, and by communion with what he called “the hidden self,” where we are most vulnerable and alive. —Lorin Stein

The latest issue of Granta includes “Nudity,” an essay by Norman Rush about his youthful encounters with the body au naturel. Rush’s parents dabbled in a kind of functional nudism, which we might today call “letting it all hang out.” “The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest, but inflamed it,” he writes. “I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.” Though the piece mostly chronicles the young Rush’s quest to see live nudes, it takes an astonishing, affecting swerve in its final paragraph, which I won’t spoil here. It also includes, of course, those quintessentially Rushian terms for the female anatomy, “escutcheon” (the pubic crest) and “introitus” (just look it up). —Dan Piepenbring

Sunday is Groundhog Day (fingers crossed!), but I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for days now, however futile my attempts may be. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book this week. I’ve read Jansson’s Moomin comics and her children’s books, but I haven’t ever delved into her prose. This book—a series of interrelated vignettes about a girl and her grandmother on a quiet island in the Gulf of Finland—is a treasure. Its stories are miniatures not just in length but in perspective as well: sometimes literally, as when the grandmother lays down near the beach and studies a blade of grass, a fluff of down, and a piece of bark in the sand by her face. Through her examination, their minute details are writ large; the bark, for instance, becomes “a very ancient mountain.” And when she finally gazes past them, to the wider world, it no longer looks so big. —Nicole Rudick

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish is a paean to that now-extinct species, the “dress doctor,” a professional consultant who helped average citizens navigate questions of style and economy in a rapidly changing landscape. How should a working girl look professional on a budget? How might a farm wife stretch a yard of fabric and still be chic? And how to incorporate principles of harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis into every aspect of aesthetic life? The author, Linda Przybyszewski, is an academic, and the book serves as an informative cultural history. But more than this, it is a tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers. —Sadie Stein

As my Netflix queue attests, my taste in on-demand film skews toward camp and quirk. In the recent past I’ve taken in Norwegian Ninja, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and The History of Future Folk, all highly recommended—but I’ve never seen anything more bizarre than the newly released documentary Mitt. Greg Whiteley, the director, has managed to humanize Romney; politics aside, I threw my coworkers off when I mentioned that, after watching the film, I actually kind of liked the guy. How can you not fall for someone who irons his shirt while it’s still on? He’s just like us! —Justin Alvarez

Retronaut, which calls itself a “photographic time machine,” is always worth checking out. But the site outdid itself this week, with this horrifying, fascinating image of an 1866 children’s production of Bluebeard’s Wives. The composition of the shot and its macabre beauty are both arresting, but it’s the kids’ total commitment that I really love. —S.O.S.

Whenever I start to feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, I read “Thinker on Horseback,” a 1958 Sports Illustrated profile of my hero William Steinkraus. Says Steinkraus of his daily grind, “By the time I work four or five horses a day, practice the violin for a few hours, work on some articles I’ve promised, and write some letters and try to keep up with my reading, there isn’t much time left.” Did you work five horses this morning? Better get to it. —Abby Gibbon

It’s a harsh winter indeed when one goes looking for relief in seventh-century Britain. But relief is exactly what I’ve found in Nicola Griffith’s dazzling new novel Hild, which imagines the childhood of Saint Hilda of Whitby and her first years as a preteen seer for her uncle, King Edwin. Griffith’s lyrical prose emphasizes the savagery of the political landscape, in which religion, sex, and superstition are wielded mercilessly for personal gain. The plot would be engaging enough on its own, but Griffith’s impressive descriptions of seventh-century production techniques—for textiles, beer, gold, and weapons, among others—make Hild a complete escape from city slush and crowded subways. —Rachel Abramowitz

 

1 COMMENT

1 Comments

  1. Matthew Gloveer | February 1, 2014 at 10:52 am

    “Sunday is Groundhog’s Day (fingers crossed!)”
    Is there a chance Sunday isn’t Groundhog’s Day? Has the the persistent trickle of days possibly become diverted? Am I too tired to be responding to something on the internet? Only time will tell. (Maybe.)

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