by Brian Bergen-Aurand
The goal for January 2019 is to read these six books, in no particular order:
American Humor: A Study of the National Character by Constance Rourke
Stepping out of the darkness, the American emerges upon the stage of history as a new character, as puzzling to himself as to others. American Humor, Constance Rourke’s pioneering “study of the national character,” singles out the archetypal figures of the Yankee peddler, the backwoodsman, and the blackface minstrel to illuminate the fundamental role of popular culture in fashioning a distinctive American sensibility. A memorable performance in its own right, American Humor crackles with the jibes and jokes of generations while presenting a striking picture of a vagabond nation in perpetual self-pursuit. Davy Crockett and Henry James, Jim Crow and Emily Dickinson rub shoulders in a work that inspired such later critics as Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs and which still has much to say about the America of Bob Dylan and Thomas Pynchon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?
In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that…could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.
Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body by Ari Larissa Heinrich
What happens when the body becomes art in the age of biotechnological reproduction? In Chinese Surplus Ari Larissa Heinrich examines transnational Chinese aesthetic production to demonstrate how representations of the medically commodified body can illuminate the effects of biopolitical violence and postcolonialism in contemporary life. From the earliest appearance of Frankenstein in China to the more recent phenomenon of “cadaver art,” he shows how vivid images of a blood transfusion as performance art or a plastinated corpse without its skin—however upsetting to witness—constitute the new “realism” of our times. Adapting Foucauldian biopolitics to better account for race, Heinrich provides a means to theorize the relationship between the development of new medical technologies and the representation of the human body as a site of annexation, extraction, art, and meaning-making.
Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery by Glenda R. Carpio
Reassessing the meaning of “black humor,” and “dark satire,” Glenda Carpio traces a tradition in which black American humorists innovated sharp-edged, occasionally gruesome, and sometimes obscene modes of surrealist humor, to represent the brutality of chattel slavery and its legacy in contemporary culture.
Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education by Jay Timothy Dolmage
Academic Ableism brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center. For too long, argues Jay Timothy Dolmage, disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved. The ethic of higher education encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness, even as we gesture toward the value of diversity and innovation. Examining everything from campus accommodation processes, to architecture, to popular films about college life, Dolmage argues that disability is central to higher education, and that building more inclusive schools allows better education for all.
Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey
Imagine if every month the government deposited $1,000 into your bank account, with nothing expected in return. It sounds crazy. But it has become one of the most influential and hotly debated policy ideas of our time. Futurists, radicals, libertarians, socialists, union representatives, feminists, conservatives, Bernie supporters, development economists, child-care workers, welfare recipients, and politicians from India to Finland to Canada to Mexico–all are talking about UBI. In this sparkling and provocative book, economics writer Annie Lowrey examines the UBI movement from many angles. She travels to Kenya to see how a UBI is lifting the poorest people on earth out of destitution, India to see how inefficient government programs are failing the poor, South Korea to interrogate UBI’s intellectual pedigree, and Silicon Valley to meet the tech titans financing UBI pilots in expectation of a world with advanced artificial intelligence and little need for human labor. Lowrey explores the potential of such a sweeping policy and the challenges the movement faces, among them contradictory aims, uncomfortable costs, and, most powerfully, the entrenched belief that no one should get something for nothing. In the end, she shows how this arcane policy has the potential to solve some of our most intractable economic problems, while offering a new vision of citizenship and a firmer foundation for our society in this age of turbulence and marvels.